As I have already mentioned and what has become a theme of several installments on this here blog already, this year spells the 50 year’s anniversary of a lot of significant things. Because looking back it turns out that a lot of, to quote the US National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 here, events that were “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” happened in 1969.
As for events directly related to music goes the event most people would associate with 1969 is Woodstock; the mythical music festival that took place in upstate New York that has been enshrined in our collective conscious for it’s pivotal role in the progression of popular music and for it’s cultural impact of both those who attended and those who did not alike.
If you are a regular follower of music journalistic outlets like Rolling Stone, NME, Pitchfork and so on you likely have been exposed to a number of articles the last few months talking about Woodstock. Several about the development and the ultimately unfortunate cancellation of the festival’s 50th anniversary edition, but of course also about the original festival itself.
It has been pretty inspiring lately to read all these articles with tidbits about legendary festival for some one who neither weren’t there or even was conceived at the time. Although there were many a great performer and narratives from Woodstock we could talk about, for me if I had to pick a single thing that I most associate with Woodstock it has to guitar maestro and virtuoso Jimi Hendrix.
There is so much fluff and words of legend around Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance, hence why so many moons later so many beyond myself links Hendrix so strongly to the festival.
But by 1969 Hendrix was a big, big deal even to his contemporaries. We reckon today that he was one of the if not the highest paid rock musicians at the time. He was despite a stacked, stacked list of artist slotted to play at the festival the headline act of the festival. That Woodstock would be so synonymous with Hendrix seems like it was going to be a given even before the festival took place. However despite the setup for greatness and legend we could easily remember the performance as a foot note in the greater narrative of Woodstock or we could even remember it as a dud given some of the circumstances as laid out here.
Like for example that when Hendrix took the stage on August 18th he did so with a newly assembled band that he didn’t entirely click with, delays caused by rain pushed his performance way late until Monday morning after the festival was supposed to be wrapped up (i.e. the 18th) or that he wasn’t even originally intended to close out the festival(!). Yet despite this Hendrix willed through and gave a performance we, even those who neither were there or didn’t even lived back then, talk about to this day. If anything knowing that there were multiple reasons for why the performance could have ended up a dud for me it feeds even more into the grand mythos of him.
The most iconic track or piece of music performed by Hendrix at Woodstock is of course his eerie rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner“, the national anthem of the USA, where the usual triumphant instrumentals of the tune were traded for the distorted, feedbacking, wailing and crying electrical guitar of Hendrix; a political statement about the tumultuous times of US society of the time period.
As for my choice of song for thought I going with another little gem of his. It’s been a little difficult to research for what exactly his setlist was that day, partly because it was 50 years ago but also because he often played extended jams and solos during his sets, and seamlessly segue between songs I found that his setlist are often in part open for interpretation.
That said I have found this list which seem to be fairly accurate, but I wouldn’t swear by it. Regardless of what the exact setlist was, from what I have been able to conclude is that one of the first tracks he played at Woodstock was “Hear My Train a Comin‘”, which happen to one of my favorite Hendrix cuts.
“Hear My Rain a Comin'” is one of the many tracks in Hendrix’s discography that he played live, at least some rendition of it, but never got the chance to release on record before his too early passing in 1970 at just the age of 27. Instead it like several other tracks have fortunately been gifted to us via posthumous releases of his music, like the “People, Hell and Angels” record released in 2013. Nowadays there are multiple recordings and versions of the song out there, which all have their charms and beauties to them, but the one recorded with his Band of Gypsys band I would argue is the most cohesive and polished one which made it my pick for today.
What I find very cool with this particular song and why I cherish this song so much, even in relative to his the rest of his fanatics catalog of music, is the supreme blend between Jimi Hendrix the guitar rock virtuoso and Jimi Hendrix the Bluesman and the Blues heritage he draws from. In the song you have the sweet tone and guitar chops you expect by Hendrix, but it’s superimposed on what otherwise feel like a very traditional Delta Blues tune in format and theme, including the lyrics. A genre of music that is very dear to me.
Between Hendrix guitar and the drums you get this chugging, trodding feeling which propels the song forward, which is a feeling that many a Delta Blues tune conjures albeit often just by the sound of a finger picked guitar in case of many classic Delta Blues performers. It matches very well also with the lyrical theme of the song with the protagonist’s repeated longing for a train.
The theme of trains and using trains to both metaphorically but also literally to escape trouble and pain and/or try to find a better place or state in life is a common lyrical theme within old school Country Blues. Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues” or Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train” are a few examples out of a myriad of tunes with these themes. So again here “Hear My Train a Comin'” can be seen as, and certainly felt like, an homage to the old Bluesmen.
The final aspect to why I feel so strongly about this song is that it’s easy to relate the lyrics and mood of the song to Hendrix personally. From what we know today Hendrix himself was a soul that didn’t quite fit in either in his hometown and in High School nor later on during his time in service in the Military. During much of his teenage and adolescent years he felt unhappy and took solace, like many of the Bluesmen of the days of yore did, in playing music. Therefore it feel very possible that protagonist in “Hear my Train a Comin'” is indeed Hendrix himself.
Whatever Hendrix thought about himself with the song or not, we can now looking back note for sure that by 1969 one train had already come for him, the one that had taking him out in the world to a place where he could flourish and become what he was supposed to be. But at the same time another train was already on it’s way to pick him up for another regrettable destination…