Playlist: Songs of resistance, revolution and protest from Jimi Hendrix’s record collection
Jimi Hendrix saw music as a means to change the world around him. With this in mind we have delved into his own artistic output and the music that influenced him to illustrate how creating a record can be a powerful form of activism.
“If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music”
For the first in a series of playlists, each throwing a spotlight on a particular aspect of Jimi’s records and his record collection, we have put together an hour of songs that deal with themes of resistance, revolution and protest.
Whether they are supporting the Civil Rights Movement, railing against the Vietnam War or representing the 60s counterculture more generally – all of these songs are more relevant today than we’d like to admit.
Although it’s over 50 years since any of them were recorded, hopefully these tracks and the stories behind them can, as they did back then, help breed a sense of solidarity and be a source of inspiration.
Jimi Hendrix – Star Spangled Banner (Live at Woodstock)
From: Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack
One of the most iconic moments of the sixties, Hendrix’s searing rendition of the US national anthem at Woodstock in July 1969 was interpreted by many at the time, and since, as his unique statement against the violence and bloodshed of the Vietnam War.
Hendrix doesn’t play the tune so much as play with it, using everything in his arsenal of pedals, feedback and distortion to manipulate the sound of his guitar into something resembling exploding bombs.
Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun (Live at the Fillmore East)
From: Band of Gypsys
Apparently when Miles Davis was asked what he heard in Jimi’s music, he replied “It’s that goddamned mother****ing ‘Machine Gun’”, and it’s not hard to understand why.
With its relentless guitar soloing, staccato drum motif and lyrics told from the perspective of a soldier trapped in war, it is unmistakably Hendrix’s protest against not just the Vietnam War, but also any pointless suffering.
This message is reinforced by his onstage dedication to both the protestors in cities and universities across the US at the time and the soldiers fighting in Vietnam (where drafted black Americans were dying in massively disproportionate numbers).
Bob Dylan – Masters of War
From: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
It would be impossible to have a list of protest songs without including Dylan in there somewhere. It’s well known that Hendrix was a huge fan. In fact Dylan was by far the best-represented artist in Jimi’s record collection, with nine albums! These records are among the most battered Jimi owned, with much more damage to the vinyl, labels, and sleeves than his other albums.
‘Masters of War’ is Dylan at his most inflammatory, railing against the US’s ‘military-industrial complex’ going as far as singing “And I hope that you die, And your death will come soon”. Dylan later said that the song was “supposed to be a pacifistic song against war… that spirit was in the air, and I picked it up.”
Richie Havens – Handsome Johnny
From: Mixed Bag
This anti-war anthem follows the eponymous soldier marching through famous battles in history right up to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama. He then urges listeners to take a stand before it’s too late.
Ritchie Havens knew Jimi from his early days in New York and dropped by Jimi’s flat at 23 Brook Street with a copy of this album. Doug Kaye who worked at the restaurant Mr Love below Hendrix’s flat at the time remembers going up to serve some food, and hearing Havens, playing this song on an acoustic guitar. When he asked ‘who’s that song by?’, everyone erupted with laughter, before Jimi pointed to Havens, saying: ‘It’s by him!’
Nina Simone – The Backlash Blues & Mississippi Goddam
From: ‘Nuff Said
These tracks were recorded live in New York on April 7, 1968, just three days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and the whole program that night was dedicated in his memory.
This entire album is a powerful snapshot of that moment in time, but these two tracks are particularly poignant. ‘The Backlash Blues’ was a civil rights song penned for Simone by the ‘poet laureate of Harlem’ Langston Hughes, while Mississippi Goddam was her response to racist murders in Mississippi and Alabama, and became an anthem during the Civil Rights Movement despite being banned in several Southern states.
Muddy Waters – Herbert Harper’s Free Press News
From: Electric Mud
The title of this track by the legendary Muddy Waters comes from the proliferation of underground newspapers popular among the counterculture of the late 60s.
Despite the fact that this album was a calculated move by Chess Records to try and sell Muddy Waters, an older bluesman, to young hippies by teaming him up with the psychedelic group Rotary Connection, it still serves as a reflection of the revolutionary mood of the of the time.
On top of that apparently Hendrix would listen to this track to warm-up before going on stage.
Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention – Trouble Every Day
From: Freak Out!
A rant against racial discrimination and the TV news coverage of the events of the time, Trouble Every Day was Frank Zappa’s response to watching the Watts riots in Los Angeles unfold in August 1965 – one of the most infamous race riots in American history that lasted for six days and resulted in the deaths of 34 people, 1,000 people injured and the destruction of more than $40 million worth of property.
Zappa even received a visit from the FBI after this was released as they wanted to know just how involved he was in the riots!
Junior Wells – Vietcong Blues
From: Chicago/The Blues/Today!
Recorded in 1965, this compilation of electric blues artists out of Chicago was a huge influence on many including Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
Backed by Buddy Guy on guitar, Junior Wells sings of receiving a letter from a younger brother serving in Vietnam. He sings “Lord they say, you don’t have no reason to fight, baby” before comparing his brother’s situation to his own struggles at home. As Erik Gellman states in Troublemakers “Vietcong Blues expressed the new culture of resistance emanating from mid-19960s Chicago.”
Though it may not seem particularly revolutionary today Vietcong Blues was anti-establishment enough to catch the attention of the FBI. When Wells returned to the US after playing the song to 12,000 fans at a gig in East Berlin (on a tour sponsored by the US government) an FBI agent confronted him with a letter forbidding him from playing the song ever again without the State Department’s consent. “This seemingly innocent blues man had become a subversive cultural figure, his music highlighting hometown activists who increasingly criticized racial discrimination, poverty, and war.”
Bob Dylan – Maggie’s Farm
From: Bringing It All Back Home
Another Dylan classic, this time from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home. “Maggie’s Farm” could represent a number of different things — racism, state oppression, exploitation — but to Dylan it was also protest against the artistic confines of the folk music scene at the time.
Dr John – The Patriotic Flag-Waver
Dr. John – who crossed paths with Hendrix in LA when Jimi was still a touring sideman – sings this song with his tongue firmly in his cheek. A children’s choir singing the American patriotic song My Country, ‘Tis of Thee fades in and out while he sings “Stick all the communists in one neighbourhood, terrorize their children, it’ll feel real good,” and “Send the draft card burners back to Vietnam, if they protest over there, I won’t give a damn.”
In his autobiography Dr John later wrote that 1969, the year the album came out, was “the year of the Tet Offensive, and of the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. … In its lyrics and music, this album reflects these chaotic days.”
Jimi Hendrix – I Don’t Live Today
From: Are You Experienced?
Finishing things off is this track from Jimi’s classic 1967 debut album Are You Experienced?.
The importance of this song to Hendrix is shown by how often he incorporated it into his live sets throughout his career, where he would dedicate it to indigenous and other minority groups, in honour of his own Cherokee heritage.
Not a protest song as such but as author Sean Egan wrote, the song can be seen to evoke “the despair of a devastated and brutalized race.” Despite the bleak lyrics, the energy Hendrix gives the track makes it sound more like “a determination to live life to the fullest than a fear that there might not be too many more days left”, as Ritchie Unterberger writes in The Rough Guide to Jimi Hendrix.
Listen to this playlist and more over on our Spotify page.