It was one of those things where you just blurt out, “I wanna do THAT!” when it’s something you’ve never done before, and have no idea if you can.

I was talking to Regent Theatre manager, Leland Stein, when he said the UltraSonic Rock Orchestra was in residence on a weekend I was home from tour.  The Regent is a few blocks from my house, and what I blurted out was, “Hey, ask them if they want me to play a Hendrix version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the shows.”

Hendrix at Woodstock

High on my own personal Hendrix Experience

If you’re new to this blog, I should say here that I play the harp.  OK, it’s an electric harp and while I have been called the “Hendrix of the harp” — ’til a few weeks ago I’d actually never played any Hendrix, and … forgive me … but I’d never really listened to “Star Spangled Banner” – I mean the Hendrix version.

So I came into it like I do to most popular culture experiences: as an alien.   Which has a lot of advantages.

I found a YouTube video of Hendrix’s “National Anthem” Woodstock performance and started watching.  Instead of trying to write out the notes, I typed up the lyrics – it seemed easier.  Then I watched the video and scribbled onto the lyrics:   small squiggles where Hendrix bent the notes, intense squiggles blots and bursts where that’s how the music sounded. And as my squiggles and blotches filled the page,  the piece came into view and I realized what Hendrix had done was no random distortion of a national symbol, but an emotional, moving tone-poemillustrating, sometimes very literally, the underlying words of the very piece he was playing.*

Far from defiling the song in any way, Hendrix intentionally illustrated the words.

Would I have noticed this if I hadn’t studied Debussy and Mahler, if I hadn’t listened to Wagner or art songs?   Who knows.

But once I realized it was a tone-poem, I knew how to approach playing it, and if you follow the words either listening to my version or the Hendrix version, you’ll hear immediately how the musical ‘departures’ closely illustrate the words.

One of the most moving moment of the piece, for me, comes after the words:  “Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there …”

Translating Hendrix to Harp

At that point, Hendrix plays a haunting reference to “Taps”  — which creates a beautiful musical double-entendre, because not only does “Taps” have a double meaning of ‘nighttime’ and respect for the death of a soldier – but the first notes of Taps are the same as those that follow in the national anthem (“Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave…)” — and on “wave” Hendrix flutters the note in a gorgeous combination of synethesia and onomatopœia, making the music sound the way the words say it looked.

I’d call it musical theater – but it almost seems like musical literature.


UPDATE OCT. 2011 – I’ll be reprising this in my 11-11-11 show at the Regent Theatre, so I searched through my pile for my ‘transcription.’ Here it is (click on it to see it larger):

Hendrix "Transcription"

Hendrix SSB "Transcription"

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