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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

May 18, 2016: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: Jimi Hendrix’s Covers

[May 16th marks the 50th anniversary of the releases of Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde, two iconic 1960s rock albums. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy those artists and other 60s rock icons and songs. Please share your own rocking responses (or hazy memories) for a righteous crowd-sourced post!]
On what the legendary 60s guitarist brought to three famous covers.
1)      Hey Joe” (1966): Recorded as a single and later released on Are You Experienced (1967), the The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album, Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” was a cover of a song by Southern songwriter Billy Roberts. It’s perhaps too easy to say that Hendrix brings more fire and passion to the song, but certainly that’s part of what makes his version stand out; he taps into the anger and pain that are part of Roberts’ lyrics but not quite his performance (at least not in that hyperlinked version). But it’s impossible not to think at least a bit about race as well, not so much as a social or cultural issue but rather as an integral part of the Delta Blues tradition in which Roberts’ song rests but which Hendrix’s version brings out far more potently. Those blues were created by African American voices, and Hendrix’s voice is a perfect fit for a quintessential blues song like “Hey Joe.”
2)      All Along the Watchtower” (1968): Hendrix and the Experience began playing Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” almost as soon as it was released (on Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding), and recorded their version in early 1968; it was included on their third and final studio album, Electric Ladyland (1968). Hendrix’s version is to my mind closer to the original than was the case with his “Hey Joe,” but in this case I would say the key distinction also provides a pitch-perfect illustration of the vital role Hendrix’s electric guitar played in all his songs. In “Watchtower” that guitar becomes a character in its own right, one that to my mind is far more tangible and grounded, captures more of a sense of real events unfolding in a possible version of our world, than do the opaquely allegorical joker, thief, and other figures in the song’s lyrics. Which is to say, I’d call Hendrix’s version dystopian realism, compared to Dylan’s speculative allegory—and that howling guitar comprises the central difference.
3)      The Star-Spangled Banner” (1969): And then there’s Hendrix’s anthem. It’s the starting point for one of the great recent short stories (and a sort of cover in its own right), Sherman Alexie’s “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock.” It’s also one of those artistic performances that are deeply dependent on place and time and context, on the coming together of so many factors through which the stars align for a musical, cultural, and national moment that can’t be replicated. (See also: The version of Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” performed in Tampa less than a month after the Trayvon Martin killing just up the road in Sanford.) To name only one such context, there’s Hendrix’s early 1960s year of service as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne, one of the many facts of his life that refuse to be reduced to any one image or stereotype (such as “the counter-culture”). I’m on record as no fan of our current national anthem—but if we’re gonna keep it, we most definitely should use Hendrix’s verison whenever possible.
Next RockStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other RockStudyings you’d share?

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