Hendrix had been a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne (from which he was honorably discharged), and the young men fighting and dying in Vietnam are evoked in the sounds that start eating away at the tune at about the place the words “rockets’ red glare” would be sung. Bombs, airplane engines, explosions, human cries, all seem to swirl around in the feedback and distortion. At one point, Hendrix toggles between two notes a semitone apart while burying the guitar’s tremolo bar, turning his Fender Strat into a doppler warp of passing sirens, or perhaps the revolving blades of a helicopter propeller. A snippet of “Taps” toward the end makes explicit the eulogy for those left on the battlefield, transcending Vietnam and becoming a remembrance of all those lost to the violence of war.
The solo might also be registering a different war, one that had been going on at home. The previous year, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, and the blow delivered to the civil-rights movement—centrally inspired by King’s dream of a time “when people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—seems somehow part of the rage flying out of Hendrix’s amplifiers. All the exalted ideals of the American experiment, and the bitterness of its contradictions and hypocrisies, are placed in volatile admixture through an utterly American contraption, a device you might say is the result of a collaboration between Benjamin Franklin, Leo Fender , and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the mongrel machine that Hendrix made into a medium for a new kind of virtuosity. In the Woodstock performance of the national anthem, we find that an electric guitar can be made to convey the feeling that the country’s history could be melted down, remolded, and given a new shape.