Jimi Hendrix & Harlem: September 5th, 1969 at the Harlem Street Fair
Written by Handel & Hendrix in London volunteer Aidan Carroll.
Any discussion of Jimi Hendrix’s views on ‘big’ topics has to be prefaced with a reminder of his age. Every comment he ever made came before the age of 27, and for anyone that young it would be a daunting thought that their views – which naturally change and adapt with time and knowledge -would be preserved forever in black and white. That is what we are dealing with here; the views of a young musician who, by sole virtue of his ethnic background, was asked questions difficult enough for academics of the day to devote hundreds of pages to answering. Jimi was expected to answer off-the-cuff, and given his affable demeanour in interviews, he often would. His views on race and racism, which at times seem to differ wildly, are simply a reflection of this method of extraction. We will see, through the course of this short study, that his views on music and race changed and matured as he aged. As we all know, he was taken from us before he had the chance to share all he had with the world.
What this piece concerns specifically is his performance on September 5th, 1969 at the Harlem Street Fair. It was an important social statement for New York’s black community, seen as a counterpoint to the predominantly white Woodstock festival, for which of course Jimi was also in attendance. I will try and trace Jimi’s connection to this neighbourhood, what his reasons for choosing to perform at this free gig might have been, and what the performance possibly represented. Of course these conclusions are all my own, and are, sadly, impossible to prove – but I do hope that I do justice to the great man.
As any visitor to our museum knows, Jimi made his biggest musical break in London after moving there at the end of 1966. Hendrix was, by this point, a polished and seasoned performer, and it was the city he had flown in from that had provided that polish. If London was the city of his success, then New York was the city of graft. It was on the streets and in the clubs of Manhattan that Jimi learned the grim realities of musicianship. It was, however, an existence he was ready for; there was only one life for Jimi and that was music. He admitted that once out of the army he had tried to hold down some jobs with no success – he quit every one “after a week or so”. Jimi swapped West for East coast in 1962, attracted by the gravitational pull of a city that held the promise of rebirth for so many. It was the centre of the musical world, let alone America, and Jimi wanted desperately to plug himself into its beating heart. This excitement and idealism was, as with most things, dulled by the harsh reality of being a nobody in a city full of somebodies; Jimi learned that the music scene guarded itself from outsiders with great suspicion. These somebodies weren’t about to let some upstart take the limelight off them, and rejection became as regular for Jimi as trains into Grand Central. That said, his initial glimpse of the New York music scene was actually one of success. He played in the Harlem Apollo Theatre’s amateur music contest and won first prize. One would assume that an accolade garnered in the centre of New York’s blues scene would open the door to some kind of paid gigging work – supplementing the twenty-five-dollar prize. In actual fact, Hendrix found the door barely pushed ajar: “I’d get a gig once every twelfth of never”. He stayed, or rather “starved” there for a few weeks, sleeping usually on the streets or in the clubs he had played in. He quickly found the seedy side to the Harlem music scene; gambling, drug dealing and prostitution were some of the main sources of income for the club owners. This was by no means a phenomenon exclusive to American cities; minimal research into the London club scene of the sixties reveals a similar bond between clubs and organised crime. Jimi was not shocked by this; his upbringing in Seattle was by no means sheltered and Jackson Street (where music venues were, and still are, situated) had similar associations, though not to the same extent. Jimi’s first taste of Harlem, then, was not one of glitz and glamour and, more significantly for Jimi, not one of musical success. He spent some of his hardest times here, writing in a letter home that he “did not eat every day” and revealing to an interviewer years later that he had been reduced to eating “orange peel and tomato paste”, probably taken from the waste bins of others. This is not to try and fetishise his poverty, to make any argument that great art comes only from great pain, or that he was “living the blues”, as one biographer put it. Jimi would have been able to make more money (though admittedly barely a living) had he stuck at some of his other jobs, like delivery driving, but he knew that was not the life he was searching for. Recounting his way of living simply demonstrates his devotion to music, and only music – no matter how many times it seemed to kick him to the kerb. He went back on the road again, behind Little Richard, the Isley Brothers and countless others, but the city kept drawing him back in again; he was determined that he would be remembered not as “Maurice James” (one of his session musician aliases), but as an artist in his own right.
Jimi was stuck between two worlds; his guitar playing was too strange and flamboyant to be considered authentic blues, and thus shunned in Harlem – but his blackness kept him out of most clubs in the parts of the city that would consider anything else. He eventually found a home in the village, where his contemporary musical idol, Bob Dylan, had found fame singing in his shockingly unpolished way. Greenwich Village was the centre of the hippie movement, a predominantly white affair, and it was his “exotic blackness” that was the main reason for his initial attraction. Far from his mastery of the guitar being the main reason for young people’s fascination, it was his outward appearance that made him a spectacle. It is difficult to cast a wholly disparaging eye on the young fans at the Café Wha, where he made a name for himself; whilst some of them were likely there to see the rarity of a black man dancing flamboyantly on stage, there were probably just as many appreciating the incredible musicianship they were witnessing. It was here that he found his first champion in this regard, Linda Keith, who was the then-girlfriend of Keith Richards. She was in awe of his playing on the first night she saw him, and herself and Jimi spent the rest of the evening in deep discussion on the merits of regional American Blues music – listening to her extensive collection of vinyl.
The significance of Jimi’s music being played to predominantly white audiences and on white radio stations made things difficult for him. His relationship with Harlem was, musically, tinged with anger and rejection, whereas in the Village it was musically accepting, but his ethnicity remained an issue for some – “you don’t want him in your band, he’s black” complained one Village club owner. He went where the music took him, away from Harlem, and away from the black community in New York. He did not divorce himself from discussions on race, though, and sincerely believed in the good in people. It is perhaps because of that that he proclaimed race “wasn’t an issue” in his life, and that people should stop talking about the past as “we know the past is all screwed up”. These are the views of a young man, hoping that things would change simply if good people willed it so. As he grew older, he understood that historic injustices are deep-seated, perpetuating things, and slowly but surely returned to the northern tip of Manhattan to help pursue the cause to change it.
Before he could do any of that, however, he had the small issue of a festival even further north to take care of; in the hitherto unknown town of Woodstock (more accurately Bethel) in the Catskill mountains. It was not, however, the Jimi Hendrix Experience that was to take the stage that day, but a new all-black outfit (aside from Mitch Mitchell on drums) called Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. Prior to the festival itself, Jimi made clear what his intentions were for this band: it was to prevent his own “ego-tripping” and get himself more out of the limelight, allowing the other musicians to take the lead. In this way it mirrored the other, more significant reason for the band: to bring music to the masses, especially those unable to afford it. “We’re going to play mostly outside… We’re going to play a lot of places, like in the ghettos, in Harlem and so forth.” And, perhaps most significantly, “Free when we can”. What Jimi was doing, consciously, with this new band was to try (difficult as that proved to be) to place the emphasis away from himself. To ensure that it was the music that took the lead, and so those who may not have been able to afford tickets to an Experience show were still able to witness his vision of music, his “sky church”. His decision to form an all-black band was undoubtedly picked on merit (he often cited the fact that he preferred the bass playing of Billy Cox to Noel Redding, the Experience’s bassist, for example) but had the added plus of bringing black excellence to those living in places often derided as the opposite. This is essentially what the Harlem Street Fair was all about: bringing together the best cultural minds for a celebration of what black people already brought to the world, and exposing it to those who may not have known the sheer breadth of talent that that entailed. The list of just some of the performers at the festival provides a barometer of the pedigree on display. Not only some of the most legendary musicians: B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and the “High-Priestess of Soul” herself, Nina Simone, but also great orators such as a young Jesse Jackson.
Whilst Woodstock is seen by many as a “cultural touchstone of white America”, it was Jimi who arguably had the final say. His “towering, take-a-knee” rendition of the National Anthem was perhaps the most complete musical summation of the intricate paradoxes of American culture. Ostensibly patriotic, it belied a deep sense of disaffection with the American government’s treatment of its own citizens. Jimi was patently aware of the sacrifices made by young Americans in the war that defined the disillusionment of a generation. That the Vietnam War disproportionately claimed the lives of young black Americans – unable to afford the draft dodge – was not lost on Jimi; he said as much before some of his US gigs around this time. Jimi would have known that had he been a teenager in 1969 and not 1959, his stint in the 101st Airborne may have seen him never return home.
The Harlem Street Fair, then, came at a time when Jimi was becoming more and more vocal in his addressing of non-musical issues. This must have been difficult for him; almost immediately upon arrival in London, journalists were quick to talk not of his music, but his appearance. His flamboyant, hippy-esque clothing, combining bright colours and unorthodox pairings, was seized upon by journalists keen to stress his ‘exoticness’. He was very quickly christened the “Wild Man of Borneo”, despite having absolutely no connection with an island between Indonesia and Singapore. Ostensibly, the label was a reference to his “unkempt” appearance, masking its more insidious connotations in a veneer of harmless observational humour; this country has always been good at that sort of thing. Despite the shamelessly racist depiction of Jimi in the tabloids, his race did not necessarily do his music career as much harm here as it did in the US – not in cosmopolitan London at least. In the capital’s music scene, his otherworldly presentation was a source of fascination, and was a presentation he transcended with his equally otherworldly guitar playing. He found, in London, a scene similar to that of Greenwich Village; more open to his boundary-pushing style. The contrast with Harlem, the centre of R&B in New York, was obvious – and no doubt painfully so for Jimi. “If he would have taken that [his effect-laden guitar playing] to Harlem, he would have been laughed at”, remembered TaharQa Aleem, a friend whom Jimi stayed with from time to time in Harlem. To know deep down that the centre of African-American music and culture would not have accepted his music must have been hard for Jimi, and being a constant outsider, feeling as if he was betraying his own roots by spending time in the Village playing to majority-white crowds, must surely have played on his mind. White artists have never been held to this high a standard; at no point would Eric Clapton have had to navigate so many difficult notions of belonging or not belonging, of wondering whether acceptance would have been afforded him or not; he could focus on his music, and let his guitar do all his talking. This is what Jimi largely tried to do whilst finding success with the Experience; understandably so, given that he was only 24, finally able to fulfil his dreams – and become successful beyond his wildest dreams. Hendrix’s fame in the US eventually brought him into contact with those campaigning for civil rights. One anecdotal story, again involving Aleem, concerns Jimi being called at in the street to purchase the newspaper of the Black Panthers, which he duly does – prompting the vendor to proudly proclaim “Jimi Hendrix wants a Black Panther Newspaper!”. It was late 1968, he had just turned twenty-six, and he was becoming increasingly aware of his relatively unique status as a black artist with a largely white fanbase; he had been called an Uncle Tom in a review for Electric Ladyland, and he was unable to make a move which did not have “ramifications that were racial, social and political”. Rather than shy away from this, Jimi did the opposite, and nowhere was this clearer than on the streets of Harlem on 5th September, 1969.
The point of this festival was clear; it was to bring culture and joy to those least likely to be afforded it. Such was the fear by the US federal government of violence, they refused to police it; quietly hoping for a flare up of violence that could be used to justify their own racist agendas. The Black Panthers stepped in and provided security for the event. Over a quarter of a million people attended, and the violence so anticipated simply did not materialise. The festival was about joy and empowerment, about finding a voice. Nina Simone performed a timely poem instead of a song as her final piece, urging the crowd not to settle for less, to attain what was theirs and not to let the power of this moment wane. Jimi’s decision to play with his majority-black band was a clear recognition of these sentiments. It was a message to America that its black community was absolutely on the same cultural plane as the white America immortalised by Woodstock.
Musically, it was not Jimi’s finest hour; there is a recording of the event on YouTube, but the sound quality is akin to Jimi’s amp being thrown into the Hudson. This was, in contrast with so much of his life, a time where the music was not the only thing that mattered. He was upstaged somewhat by Big Maybelle, a legendary blues artist, who had had residents “singing from the tenement windows”. By the time he arrived – fashionably late of course – the crowd had dwindled to a few hundred. What was more important to Jimi was that his music, “loud and funky”, matched the mood of Harlem that night; “that’s what’s in the air right now, isn’t it?”, was Jimi’s rhetorical comment. He introduced Voodoo Chile as the “national anthem of Harlem”, and was open in his love for the place – posing for pictures with fans and outside local restaurants. Despite the hardships he faced there, Harlem was still the home of the blues, and Jimi was a bluesman at heart. He was deliberately returning to his roots with this gig, having made huge sums of money for his work and being readily criticised for doing so. He was perhaps feeling a pang of guilt at his financial success, which was another vortex of trapdoors. Yet again, he was being held to a different standard; no white guitarist would be attacked for their success in such a way. Success, and being able to leave a life of poverty, would in most other respects be wholly commended, but for Jimi it was seen as a betrayal of his impoverished roots. The United Block Association was a way for Jimi to give back, to allow those unfamiliar with his music to be exposed to it, and, simply, for solidarity. It would have been easy for Jimi to buy a mansion in the country somewhere and shield himself from the relentless pressures of the outside world. As those who have visited his flat in 23 Brook Street will know, however, that was not his style. He was at his happiest when he was in the middle of it all, in the cities where all is movement; standing still was not what Jimi stood for. The vastness of his shows had become a source of constant disappointment, and he wanted more than anything to perform in the smallest of venues, among those who wanted to absorb the experience and appreciate the music. Losing that connection with people was something he felt was slowly beginning to happen, and gigs like this were his way of reconnecting with that essential reason for music making; real, in-the-moment events.
Standing on the corner of 139th Street and Lenox Avenue on the 5th of September 1969 at midnight would have been to bear witness to the maturation of a musician, still only at the age of 26. Jimi was engaging with the world around him, with the injustices and grievances of a nation beginning to find its voice for the 20th Century and beyond. His disbelief at the horrific effects of the Vietnam War on a generation almost a decade younger than even himself was becoming a feature of his performances, and mirrored the disillusionment of his home nation. All of this is summed up by his defining take on the Star Spangled Banner, a version whose plummeting, dissonant guitar nosedives sound just as relevant today as they did at its inception.
Real change never comes about through good intention alone, and it was this gig that represented Jimi’s acknowledgement of that. He was just beginning to add his voice to the growing discontent with the racist agenda of the US and beyond, and it is a deep tragedy that he was taken from the world at such a pivotal moment in his life. It deprived the world of a man who, had he been alive today, would surely have appreciated the cultural movements regaining force today. It is to do justice to the lives of Jimi and all of those in attendance at the Harlem Street Fair that we support the fundamental truth that Black Lives Matter, and endorse their contribution to ensuring that progress is never allowed to stand still.