It’s been over fifty years since the legendary Woodstock Festival, but even half a century cannot erase the memories of Jimi Hendrix forgetting the words to “The Star Spangled Banner.”
After 31 performances from legends the likes of Santana and The Grateful Dead, the festival organizers decided it would be appropriate to wake everyone up at 9 a.m. so Jimi Hendrix could sing the National Anthem. The performance was supposed to display unity and patriotism in a counterculture crowd staunchly against the Vietnam War. And it would have if Jimi Hendrix had remembered the words.
The rock and roll icon took the stage in the quiet morning without his treasured Fender, prepared to do an a capella rendition of the American tune. But after clearing his throat a couple of times as he looked nervously out to the miles of campgrounds, it was clear that the weekend of peace and love was more or less over.
“I’ll never forget it, we were all in tents sleeping, and we heard this horrible feedback from the microphone on stage,” recalled Marion Funparse, 75, who attended the festival. “Everyone sort of stood up and got quiet out of respect, I guess?”
Following epic sets from Joe Cocker, The Band, and a 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. show from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Hendrix stood in front of nearly half a million people, took a deep breath and sang, “Oh say can you please…” before drifting into silence. He tried to start a few more times, to no avail.
“It kind of killed the vibe to be honest. It was supposed to be this big symbolic gesture,” said festival organizer Hugh Terren. “I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I walked out with his guitar and hummed him a bit of the tune. I’m not even sure that helped.”
Hendrix, much more comfortable with a guitar, performed a whole song, not necessarily the right song, but a song nonetheless. There wasn’t time to update the tone setting on his guitar, but the muddiness might have covered up for his lack of knowledge. He clearly still didn’t know the tune but every time he would mess up, he’d at least do something cool like play with his teeth, or behind his head.
He finished drenched in sweat, less from exertion than from mortification, and the 500,000+ festival-goers went wild with polite applause, not knowing that the performance they just witnessed would be remembered for decades.