|Race and Rock and Roll||
Jimi Hendrix (amanda ack)
I find it impossible to present my subject, Jimi Hendrix, without first admitting that my initial investigation of his life and career was a somewhat bewildering experience. Considering the fact that my previous knowledge of the man was essentially limited to his covers of Bob Dylan songs, I decided to focus on the basics, attempting to gain a better understanding of his identity as an artist. Using facts culled primarily from a Rolling Stone biography and a few particularly insightful NPR articles, I managed to piece together a rough character sketch that seemed to define Hendrix as something of a cultural anomaly: a black man whose art managed to both transcend his race and exemplify it.
Born Johnny Allen Hendrix in 1942, Hendrix started his professional music career in the early 1960s by playing backup for artists on the “chitlin’ circuit,” a minority-friendly group of nightclubs that were ideal performance venues for the blues and soul set. While on the circuit, Hendrix played behind such household names as B.B. King and Little Richard; by 1964, his touring range had expanded to include the New York club scene.
However, it took another two years – and a change of continent – for Hendrix to gain popularity as more than a backup guitarist. In 1966, supported by Chas Chandler of the Animals, Hendrix went to London and formed the Jimmy Hendrix Experience, shooting to stardom shortly thereafter. It is notable that this abrupt rise to fame was not hindered by racial prejudice; in fact, Charles Cross, author of Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, points out that in England, “suddenly [Hendrix’s] race [was] no longer a defining characteristic. In fact, his race [ended] up being an asset, because he was given a level of authenticity immediately by the British public.” What’s most remarkable here is that while this level of authenticity wasn’t necessarily denied upon Hendrix’s return to the United States, he was not welcomed with quite the same enthusiasm, due to the prevalent racist attitude of the American public.
But even more inconsistent than the various public opinions of Hendrix were his own opinions of himself. For a man who is quoted as saying, “Race isn’t a problem in my world,” he was certainly not oblivious to his “blackness” – and what’s more, later in his career, he often used his music to champion his race. While the hypersexuality of his early performances played into the stereotype of the violently exotic black male and tended to offend black concertgoers, his later ones were both more music-driven and more race-conscious; in fact, at a concert given by the all-black Band of Gypsys, Hendrix’s bluesy post-Experience band, he announced that one of his songs, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” was the Black Panthers’ national anthem.
It is this dichotomy between racelessness and extreme race consciousness that I plan to explore throughout this semester. I will seek an explanation for Hendrix’s dual purpose as a musician, delving into his childhood in the diverse Yesler Terrace Projects in Seattle, his service in Vietnam, and other pivotal parts of his life that may have had an impact on the creation of his artistic identity; furthermore, I will examine the way that his music serves as a bridge between the blues and “white” genres like heavy metal. Through this further research, I hope to build an argument that will account for the contradictory nature of Hendrix’s attitude toward his own work.
1. How did Hendrix's upbringing in Seattle, his experience in Vietnam, and his initial rise to fame in England affect his racial identity later in his career?
2. Are there elements of early blues and the music Hendrix played on the "chitlin' circuit" in his later work?
3. How did Hendrix's work serve as a bridge between blues music and heavy metal?
4. If Hendrix saw his music as something that transcended race, why did he use it as a tool for the Black Power movement?
5. To what degree did Hendrix's particular masculine identity influence his performance style?