Three Musical Greats and Their Influence on a Generation


Jimi Hendrix

In June of 1967, Brian Jones (1942-1969) of the Rolling Stones introduced a relatively unknown guitarist from Seattle named Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) at the Monterey Pop Festival, a three-day concert in California. “He’s the most exciting performer I’ve ever heard,” Jones declared. Hendrix’s performance at Monterey created a sensation. In an epic set, he played with the guitar behind his back, plucked at the strings of his Fender Stratocaster with his teeth, and ultimately lit the guitar on fire to end the show.

Hendrix’s Monterey act sent the sales of his debut album, Are You Experienced? soaring. Are You Experienced? and the two studio albums that followed in his short career are considered cornerstones of the psychedelic movement in the late 1960s. But the albums , and Hendrix, were far more than simply psychedelic. Jimi Hendrix invoked rhythm and blues, jazz, folk, rock, and funk with his wailing electric guitar.

Hendrix, more than any artist before him, made use of the unique sonic capabilites of an electric guitar, rather than simply playing it like a plugged-in acoustic. He pioneered techniques such as the use of guitar feedback, distortion, and wah-wah pedals to make the instrument sing. Hendrix is still regarded by many as the greatest rock guitarist of all time.

Two years after his performance at Monterey, Hendrix was one of the biggest music stars in the world. His third album, Electric Ladyland, peaked at number one on the US album charts, and he was named the headliner of the famous Woodstock festival in 1969. At 7:30 a.m. on a wet Monday morning during the festival, Hendrix roused the sleeping concertgoers with a solo electic-guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Full of distortion and improvisations, the performance became a symbol of the hippie generation and the changing mood of America.

Less than a year later, Jumi Hendrix died of complications following a drug overdose in a London hotel room. Only twenty-seven, he had already changed the face of rock music and furthered the development of hard rock, heavy metal, and funk.

In 1992, Hendrix won a posthumous Grammy award for lifetime achievement.

 

Bob Dylan’s Switch to Electic

Singer Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941) initially achieved critical acclaim and commercial success with his recordings of folk music, a genre that was popular in the early 1960s. Folk music during the period was usually played on the acoustic guitar, and its lyrics often dealt with serious political themes such as war and racism. Dylan’s austere antiwar anthems “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) and “Masters of War” (1963) are widely considered masterpieces of the genre.

But Dylan, whose first musical love as a teenager in Minnesota had been rock and roll, chafed against the staid conventions of folk music. In 1965, at the height of his popularity as a folksinger, he abruptly shifted gears. To the horror of folk aficionados, Dylan started adding rock rhythms and instruments to records such as Bringing It All Back Home (1965) and Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Dylan, the critics complained, had reinvented himself; he had “gone electric.”

As an artist who was often referred to as the voice of his generation because of his politically charged folk songs, Dylan’s makeover caused an enormous uproar in the music world. Folk purists regarded his use of electic organs and guitars as apostasy. After releasing “Like a Rolling Stone”, one of his most famous rock singles, in early 1965, Dylan performed at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. He came onstage with an electric band, and the reaction was immediate. After playing three songs over a chorus of boos, Dylan and his band abruptly left the stage. When the master of ceremonies urged his to come back with an acoustic guitar, Dylan obliged. Appropriately enough, he played “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

When Dylan toured England the following year, the reactions were even harsher. Most of his shows featured two sets. In the first, Dylan would play an acoustic guitar to a docile crowd. In the second, he would bring out his backing band for a searing electric set. Members of the audience would jeer, boo, or applaud through songs to drown out the band. In one famous moment, an audience member summed up the feelings of the folk community by shouting, “Judas!”  Enraged, Dylan told his band to crank up the volume and launced into a raucous rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

After the negative response he got in 1965, Dylan didn’t return to the Newport Folk Festival until 2002.

 

Woody Guthrie

 

Folksinger Woody Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land” (1940), is often played alongside Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” (1938) at Fourth of July celebrations. Guthrie’s song has so many verses that many listeners don’t notice its seething, angry lyrics:

In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people
By the relief office I seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

The song, composed in 1940, was actually written as a retort to Berlin’s upbeat patriotic tune, which Guthrie found trite and sappy at a time when millions of Americans were unemployed.

An Oklahoma native, Woodrow Guthrie (1912-1967) became a dust-bowl refugee during the Great Depression. He hoboed, hitchhiked, and according to one report, actually walked to California looking for work. Affected by his wanderings, Guthrie was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the American worker. Guthrie eventually settled in New York City, where he was involved with progressive politics and collaborated with musicians such as Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (1889-1949), Pete Seeger (1919- ), and Burl Ives (1909-1995). During World War II, Guthrie rallied the troops with historic ballads and anti-Nazi songs, and adorned his guitar with the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

Plagued by Huntington’s disease for the last fifteen years of his life, Guthrie spent his final years in terrible pain in hospitals in New York and New Jersey. He lived just ong enough to receive a visit at his bedside from one of his biggest  fans, the young folksinger Bob Dylan.

Profoundly egalitarian and deeply patriotic, Guthrie’s vast canon of music ranges from the political to the silly. He performed his own songs and evoked the voice of the common man with his direct and crackled vocals. He favored a simple style, considering ornate musical composition indulgent and bourgeois. An inspiration to new folkies such as Dylan, Joni Mitchell (1943- ), Joan Baez (1941- ), and eventually Bruce Springsteen (1949- ), Guthrie is credited with laying the foundation for the American folk revival of the 1960s.

Woody’s ashed were spread off the coast of Coney Island, the last place he lived in New York City.

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