This Monday’s memoir honors the 40th anniversary of Woodstock and takes me back to the music unit I did the first year I taught high school. Students chose some of their favorite songs, shared the lyrics and wrote a series of essays: a couple of compare and contrasts, one persuasive about their favorite genre and a second persuasive about their least favorite. Everyone brought in music to share throughout the process, and we had a lot of fun.
Students asked me to bring in some of my favorite music, and they were mostly politely tolerant of my ‘strange’ tastes (Prince, Tom Waits, Marti Jones, Michelle Shocked, Uncle Bonsai …). Then I played my final selection: Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner.
No one seemed to know how to respond. Most just stared. A few seemed interested, a few were clearly turned off — not too many rock fans in that crowd. My one mad-for-Nirvani student seemed pleased enough.
I forgot about them for a second, just enjoying the magic that is Jimi. I was tempted to put the volume on “10” and lean back with my eyes closed.
A loud, outraged, “Turn it off!” brought me right back to the classroom. All of us turned to look at Monica. She was on her feet, her face a red, angry frown. “Turn it off. That is not music.”
It was almost funny to have a 17 year old sounding like the stereotype of a parent who can’t abide the noise her kids listen to, but it wasn’t funny because Monica was clearly very upset. She was the quietest student in my class, almost never speaking, certainly never raising her voice. Her outburst was a little disturbing.
I turned off the music.
“That’s not music,” she said again. “It’s evil. Against God.”
Ok. I know that not everyone loves Jimi as I do. I know that many people don’t, in fact, like him at all. But evil? Against God? I’m sorry, but my mind can’t open far or wide enough to embrace that.
Monica’s anger was spurred by the choice of song. She saw playing the national anthem that way was an insult to everything the song represented. She was a new immigrant who had fully embraced her chosen country and who was fiercely proud of her legal status, and Hendrix seemed to be mocking her.
I know there are plenty of people who only want to hear the anthem performed in a traditional way — people were angry when Jose Feliciano performed the first widely-broadcast (gorgeous) personalized version before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. And I know Jimi’s performance goes well beyond ‘non-traditional.’ I get that it would freak someone out, but it would never have occurred to me that it would hurt anyone’s feelings.
I’m listening to it while I write this. All I’m hearing is a man alone with his music, putting himself inside that song and going where it leads him. It’s so true and so beautiful. (And so sad, too, realizing in 13 months this magnificently talented man would be dead.)
We talked about the song and Monica’s reaction and freedom of expression. it was a good discussion, though I’m pretty sure Monica was never fully persuaded that it was ok for people to perform the song without a very particular type of reverence. (I would love to have talked to her a year later when Roseanne Barr gave her infamous performance.)
Forty years ago tomorrow Jimi played The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. I wasn’t there, obviously, but that performance still resonates powerfully for me. The loss of Jimi still saddens me. The ugly truth that we are still fighting for many of the same things shocks and angers me, inspires an outrage as red-faced and righteous as Monica’s. Surely that truth is the real evil.
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.