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Cally MacLean HIST 4400 A Professor Fred Goodwin April 5, 2011

Race Isnt a Problem in My World: Jimi Hendrix, Music and Race

Annotated Bibliography For primary sources, I looked at issues of Life, Ebony and Jet, as well as the New York Times, from 1967 to 1970 to gauge what the mainstream and African American press thought of Jimi Hendrix. I also looked at two music publications, Rolling Stone, which was an underground magazine during Hendrixs lifetime, and Melody Maker, a British magazine, for interviews with Hendrix. For secondary sources, I looked at Charles R. Cross Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix and Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, The Untold Story of A Musical Genius by Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber. Crosss book, which examines Hendrixs life from his birth until his death, is widely regarded as the definitive Hendrix biography. Becoming Jimi Hendrix examines his early life in Seattle, ending with his relocation to London in 1966. For sources that examine the racial politics of Hendrixs career and the racial origins of the various genres of music that are discussed in this essay, I looked at Craig Werners A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Voodoo Child: Jimi Hendrix and the Politics of Race in the Sixties, by Lauren Okney, Blackness Scuzed: Jimi Hendrixs (In)visible Legacy in Heavy Metal by Jeremy Wells, Maureen Mahons Black Like This: Race, Generation, and Rock in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock and How it Changed a Generation by Pete Fornatale, Katherine Charltons Rock Music Styles: A History, and the radio program Star Spangled Hendrix, which was produced by the BBC. Werners book and Mahons essay examine the racial politics of a number of African American musicians careers, while Okney, Wells and Star Spangled Hendrix look specifically at this aspect of Hendrixs career. Fornatales book provides information on

Hendrix performance at the Woodstock Festival, which marked the first time he made an effort to court a black audience. Charltons book looks briefly at a variety of different genres of music, including their racial origins. For background on racial authenticity I turned to Ethics Along the Color Line by Anna Stubblefield, which also examines the changes in the civil rights movement and the rise of the Black Power movement. The Invention of Race: Rereading White Over Black by James Campbell and James Oakes, Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, and Freaks in Late Modernist American Culture by Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Tod Browning and Carson McCullers provided background on the racial stereotypes that Hendrix was called in the press.

Race Isnt a Problem in My World: Jimi Hendrix, Music and Race In 1968, psychedelic rock musician Jimi Hendrix told an interviewer that race isnt a problem in my world.1 Although Hendrix had such a progressive view of race, his brief musical career took place during an era of volatile race relations between blacks and whites in the United States, and few Americans of either race shared his outlook. Hendrix, for his pioneering use of volume, amplifier feedback, distortion, the wah-wah pedal and other guitar effects, is widely regarded as the greatest electric guitarist of all-time.2 He was beloved by the white, middle-class counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but he did not appeal to African Americans or mainstream white Americans. Race pervaded most aspects of his career, from his music to his onstage antics to his clothes, and it was rare for Hendrix to give an interview in which he was not asked a single question about race.3 This essay seeks to understand why race played such a large part in Hendrixs career. It will look at Hendrixs views on race and racial politics in America, and situate this within the broader context of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s. In order to do this, it is also necessary to examine the racial origins of the popular music of this era. This essay is divided into three sections. The first section will examine the racial history of the popular music of the era. The second section will examine Hendrixs early life and the difficulties he faced in starting his music career due to his race. The third section will examine Hendrixs return to the United States and the reception he received in the mainstream white and African American print media. This essay proposes that since Hendrix ascended to fame during a period of such disarray in the civil rights movement, it was impossible

Jeremy Wells, Blackness Scuzed: Jimi Hendrixs (In)visible Legacy in Heavy Metal, in Race Consciousness: African-American Studies for the New Century, eds. Judith Jackson Fossett and Jeffery A. Tucker (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 56. 2 Katherine Charlton, Rock Music Styles: A History, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1994), 125. 3 Lauren Okney, Voodoo Child: Jimi Hendrix and the Politics of Race in the Sixties, in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, eds. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York: Routledge, 2002), 192.

for him to separate his race from his music and image. To mainstream white Americans, Hendrix did not fit into the traditional racial mould that they prescribed to African Americans. To African Americans, whether they wanted to integrate into white American society or if they supported the Black Power movement, Hendrix did not represent their race in an acceptable way. In its origins rock and roll, which was developed in the early 1950s, was almost an equal mix of white and black music. From white music, it borrowed elements from country music and pop standards, and from black music, it borrowed elements from the blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel music. However early on, rock and roll was generally regarded as a purely black musical genre almost entirely due to the raunchy performance style that many rockers, such as Elvis, adopted.4 Due to its association with African Americans and its sexual content, white parents generally perceived this music as dangerous. In a 1968 issue of Life that was dedicated to psychedelic rock music, musician Frank Zappa observed of rock and roll: ...the real reason Mr. and Mrs. Clean White America objected to this music was the fact that it was performed by black people.... There was always the danger that one night... Janey or Suzy might be overwhelmed by the lewd, pulsating jungle rhythms and do something to make their parents ashamed.5 However, their parents disapproval of rock and roll drove many white teenagers to it and they became the primary consumers of rock and roll records. For that reason, as well as that Elvis, the best known and most successful rock star of the era, was white, and teen idols like Pat Boone covered songs by black rockers, minimizing the black elements and reselling the toned down versions to white consumers, rock and roll became largely associated with whites instead of African Americans.6 At the end of the 1950s, rock and roll died away due to many of its stars

4 5

Frank Zappa, The New Rock, Life, 28 June 1968, 85. Ibid., 85. 6 Kevin Chappell, How Blacks Invented Rock and Roll, Ebony, January 1997, 52, 54.

moving onto other projects, although rock would re-emerge in the mid-1960s, but with a totally new sound. Though white parents disapproved of rock and roll, they did not disapprove of all black music. In the interim between the demise of rock and roll and the emergence of rock, soul music dominated the American music scene, with Motown Records becoming the most popular soul music label among whites. Motown, which was based in Detroit, was founded by Berry Gordy Jr., a middle-class African American. Gordy realized that in order to be commercially successful, his music had to appeal to a white audience, but he also wanted his artists to be role models to African Americans.7 Thus, the Motown label produced records that still retained many black musical elements traditionally found in soul music, but they were also reminiscent of American pop standards as they had a clean and highly polished sound, and most also used orchestral instrumentation. Apart from their instrumentation, the lyrics were also very appealing to conservative whites as they were more innocent than those of rock and roll songs, with many being about romantic love as opposed to sex.8 In order to make his artists visually appealing to whites, Gordy created International Talent Management Incorporated, which all artists had to attend upon signing with the label. There they learned to drop the African American modes of walking, speaking, and dancing with which they had grown up and to adopt the sense of grace and style that would be expected of members of the white upper class.9 Motown artists were expected to act in this manner no matter where they were. During public appearances, they were also always nicely dressed, with men in suits and women in dresses. The efforts undertaken by Gordy to ensure his artists appealed to white Americans were successful, and Motown singles

7 8

Charlton, 79-80. Ibid., 79. 9 Ibid., 79.

and albums consistently topped the pop charts.10 His efforts to whiten his artists also exemplified the attempts of the early civil rights movement to integrate African Americans into white American society Due to the British Invasion and the psychedelic rock scene that was beginning to emerge in California and London, rock came to rule the American music scene once again in the mid1960s. Although the new rock sound was heavily influenced by 1950s rock and roll and the blues, the black musical elements that had been so strong in earlier rock and roll music were diminished to a point where they were almost nonexistent.11 Psychedelic rock bands strived to replicate or enhance the effects of LSD such as hallucinations, a sense of timelessness, and increased aural and visual sensitivity. In order to do this, they experimented extensively with Eastern musical elements and incorporated long instrumental jams into their music.12 These elements were vastly more noticeable in psychedelic rock music than anything drawn from black music, and therefore the genre was widely regarded as white. It was within the psychedelic rock scene that Hendrix made a name for himself. Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942 to working class parents. Both of his parents were of African American, Cherokee and European background, but they identified themselves as African American, and therefore Hendrix was raised as such.13 Hendrix had a rough childhood, moving between various relatives and friends, and caring for his younger brother Leon. His parents divorced when he was nine years old, and his father gained custody of him and his brother. His mother was an alcoholic who died when he was a teenager, and his father was largely absent until his teenage years. Hendrix also had three other younger siblings,

Craig Werner, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 15. 11 Charlton, 119. 12 Ibid., 119. 13 Charles R. Cross, Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 11.

all of whom were placed in foster care.14 However difficult Hendrixs childhood was, his great love of music developed during this time, and his father indulged it as best as he could as the family lived in poverty. Hendrix grew up listening to blues singers such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf as well as pop crooners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Perry Como on the local radio stations, and he decided that he wanted to play guitar. When Hendrix was a small child, his father gave him an old ukulele he found that was missing all but one string. His father later bought him a used acoustic guitar when he was fifteen, and the next year, he bought Hendrix his first electric guitar.15 Hendrix had a natural talent for the guitar and he joined numerous local bands while he was in high school, playing covers of well-known songs. However, as was to happen many times during his life, he was fired from most of them for experimenting with his sound rather than playing the songs in their familiar fashion.16 In 1961, Hendrix began a short stint in the United States Army, in which he had enlisted to avoid prison time for driving in a stolen car.17 He was stationed at Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Although Hendrix had encountered racism in Seattle, it was here that he first encountered racial segregation as he was prohibited from entering many establishments in the South. In Seattle, Hendrix had attended integrated elementary and high schools, attending classes alongside African Americans, whites, Asians and Hispanics, and this is perhaps where his progressive view of race, which was later featured in the press, was shaped.18 As well, the venues he played at during his high school years were also integrated and although the audiences were largely made up of whites, they had embraced many different genres of

Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber, Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, The Untold Story of a Musical Genius (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2010), 1-4. 15 Ibid., 6-7. 16 Ibid., 8. 17 Cross, 84. 18 Star Spangled Hendrix, BBC Radio 4, London: BBC, 24 August 2010, accessed 15 March 2011,

music. At his Southern army base, Hendrix quickly learned the difference between white and black music, after forming a band with four other African American servicemen. Hendrix was particularly fond of playing The Kingsmens Louie Louie in Seattle, but as that song was perceived as white, his army bandmates forbid him from playing it. Instead, they played the blues and rhythm and blues, two genres which were perceived as authentically black.19 The band, which was called The Kasuals, booked weekend gigs where they played solely to African American audiences. In 1962, Hendrix relocated to Nashville after being honourably discharged from the army after breaking his ankle in training. In Nashville, which became one of the centres of the American music industry during the 1950s and 1960s, he committed himself to making a career in music. He revamped The Kasuals into The King Kasuals, retaining only his army friend Billy Cox from the earlier line-up. The band played covers of popular rhythm and blues songs to allblack audiences, but their success was limited.20 Hendrix also toured the Chitlin Circuit, which referred to the small clubs in the South and on the East Coast where African American entertainers would perform for all-black audiences. The Circuit was named after a popular soul food item, chitterlings, which were fried pig intestines. It began at the Apollo Theatre in New York City and ran down towards the Southern states, encompassing any venue that accommodated African Americans.21 During his time on the Circuit, Hendrix backed up wellknown acts including Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Little Richard, Sam Cooke and The Isley Brothers. In The King Kasuals, Hendrix played lead guitar, but in all the acts he toured with on the Circuit, he was downgraded to rhythm guitar. He was also fired in fairly short order from each of these acts he was in Reddings band for less than a week for playing too loudly,
19 20

Cross, 90-1. Roby and Schreiber, 30. 21 Cross, 103.

dressing too outrageously, upstaging the frontmen and experimenting musically with songs instead of playing them as they sounded on the radio.22 Tired of his limited success and his lack of freedom to play music and dress like he wanted to, Hendrix relocated to New York City in early 1964, settling in Harlem. Harlem was home to more than half a million African Americans, and Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross referred to the neighbourhood as the true cultural capital of black America at the time.23 There Hendrix was unexpectedly met with hostility. He had assumed that he would be welcomed in Harlem, but he found the neighbourhoods music scene just as constricting as Nashvilles had been. Musicians were expected to play only jazz, blues or rhythm and blues, all black musical genres, and to stay inside these genres established frameworks. In order to add an air of professionalism to the music scene, musicians were expected to dress in suits and ties.24 Thus as in Nashville, Hendrix encountered the idea that there was a right and a wrong way to play music. Once again, he could not experiment with his sound, and he found that the necessity to play music in a certain way limited his development as a guitarist. In an interview with New York Times popular culture critic Michael Lydon in 1968, Hendrix described his experience in the Harlem music scene by saying, In the Village people were more friendly than in Harlem where its all cold and mean. Your own people hurt you more.25 The time he spent in Harlem may have been the first time he felt openly rejected by the African American community. Though he was admonished whenever he attempted to play white music in Nashville, that was understandable as the South was still largely segregated, memories of slavery were still fresh, and whites and blacks kept to themselves. He may have expected the

22 23

Ibid., 105. Ibid., 108. 24 Ibid., 109. 25 Michael Lydon, Jimi Hendrix: The Black Elvis?, New York Times, 25 February 1968, sec. D, p. 20.

music scene in integrated New York City to be similar to that of Seattle, where his audiences had been tolerant of many different musical genres no matter their racial origins. In the spring of 1966, Hendrix relocated once again in order to further his musical career.26 However, he stayed in New York City, moving to the Greenwich Village neighbourhood. It was here that Hendrix encountered his first receptive audiences since leaving Seattle. However, while audiences in his hometown had not been open to his musical experimentation, audiences in Greenwich Village were.27 For much of the twentieth century, Greenwich Village was at the centre of American bohemian culture as it was home to progressively minded artists, musicians, writers and others who practiced alternative lifestyles. In the 1950s, it was the Beat Generations home on the East Coast, and in the early 1960s, it was home to a burgeoning folk music scene. When Hendrix arrived there in 1966 it had become the East Coasts answer to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco as it was home to artists, hippies and leftist political activists. By this time, the local music scene had changed as well, with the neighbourhoods folk music scene losing sway to rock and folk rock.28 It was in Greenwich Village where Hendrix was able to cultivate the image that would soon become the subject of negativity in the mainstream white and African American press. He abandoned the suits he was obligated to wear while backing rhythm and blues bands, and instead began wearing the flamboyant outfits, both on-stage and off, that he would later become famous for. From that time until his death in 1970, his outfits included velvet bellbottom pants, jeans, vintage military jackets, silk shirts with wild prints, ruffles and tassels, brightly coloured scarves, hats, headbands, capes and jewellery. He also grew his hair into an Afro.29

26 27

Roby and Schreiber, 150. Ibid., 8. 28 Ibid., 155-6. 29 Ibid., 158.


Hendrix also tried LSD for the first time in Greenwich Village and became enamoured with the drug. He memorialized it in a number of songs including Purple Haze and Are You Experienced? and would continue to use it for the rest of his life.30 Many African Americans regarded LSD, a favourite drug of the counterculture, as a white drug. While many musicians in Harlem used drugs, most notably marijuana, they did not use LSD.31 Thus, Hendrixs propensity for LSD further distanced him from the African American community. Hendrix had no trouble establishing himself in the Greenwich Village music scene. He put together a new racially integrated band, The Blue Flames, which had African American, white and Hispanic members.32 This shows that Hendrix did not think of music in strictly black or white terms, but instead believed that musicians of any race should be able to play any genre of music, no matter its racial origins. He would later tell an interviewer, I want to show them that music is universal. There is no white rock or black rock.33 The Blue Flames can also be regarded as the predecessor of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, in which Hendrix was backed by two white British musicians, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. Two months after Hendrix arrived in Greenwich Village, The Blue Flames were booked as the house band at the Cafe Wha, the first venue Bob Dylan performed at when he moved to New York in 1961.34 The band played cover songs as Hendrix was not yet at a point where he was comfortable with playing his own music to audiences, since he was not confident in his singing voice, and he could not read or write music but only play it by ear. This made writing songs, apart from lyrics, impossible unless he collaborated with his bandmates. The Blue Flames repertoire was made up of blues songs like Howlin Wolfs Killin Floor, rock songs
30 31

Cross, 132-3. Ibid., 132. 32 Roby and Schreiber, 160. 33 Cross, 275. 34 Roby and Schreiber, 159.


such as Dylans Like a Rolling Stone, The Animals House of the Rising Sun and The Troggs Wild Thing, and jazz songs like George Gershwins Summertime. Hendrix made these songs his own by including intricate rock solos in his blues and jazz covers, adding effects like feedback and distortion to create a psychedelic sound, and extending many of them from their two to three minute running times to ten or more minutes.35 As a frontman for the first time, Hendrix was also free to do anything he wanted on stage. He developed his highly sexual performance style at the Cafe Wha, in which he would straddle his guitar, rub it over his body, play it behind his back and with his teeth, and hump his amplifier. This stunned many of the whites in the audience because although African American rhythm and blues musicians performed in this manner, white rock musicians had not yet incorporated this type of performance style into their live performances.36 In August 1966, Chas Chandler, the bass player for the British rock band The Animals, heard The Blue Flames playing at the Cafe Wha. Chandler believed that Hendrix had the potential to be a major star in England, and convinced him to move to London, and take him and Animals manager Michael Jeffery as his manager.37 In mid-September, Hendrix arrived in London and as Chandler had predicted, he was an immediate success. His management helped Hendrix put together The Jimi Hendrix Experience and they spent the fall of 1966 gaining a following by playing gigs in London night clubs, where members of The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Cream and The Who were often in the audience. When they released their first single, Hey Joe, in December 1966, it reached number four on the charts.38

35 36

Cross, 140-1. Ibid., 140-1. 37 Ibid., 146-7. 38 Ibid., 174.


Many historians, musicologists and rock critics contend that because blacks encountered relatively little racism in London compared to blacks in the United States, race played no part in Hendrixs easy acceptance into the London music scene.39 However, this claim can be easily disputed. At the time, white British musicians including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and The Rolling Stones, and their audiences alike, were enthralled by American blues music. Apart from the music, these musicians were just as captivated by the ultra-masculine and highly sexual image of the bluesman, and they sought to replicate both the bluesmans music and image.40 Although Hendrix had a unique sound that mixed together a variety of genres including the blues and added many white psychedelic elements to his music, in the eyes of British musicians, he may have been regarded as an authentic bluesman, especially when considering his performance style. However because of the whiteness of his music, African Americans did not see him in the same way. As well, Londoners regarded Hendrix as exotic and his image was put into racial terms as he was called the Wild Man from Borneo, a wild-eyed revolutionary from the Caribbean and a Mau-Mau in the London press.41 He was described in these terms because, historically in London, there were racial tensions between white Londoners and immigrants from former British colonies in the West Indies, Asia and Africa. In June 1967, The Experience made their first trip to the United States, where they performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in Monterey, California. They were basically unknown to the audience as their first album had not yet been released in the United States and they had not received very much press either. Their set, which ended with Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire, was so well-received that after the festival, The Experience immediately ascended to

39 40

Okney, 197. Charlton, 98. 41 Okney, 197.


stardom in the United States.42 Hendrix was something of an anomaly at the festival and in the psychedelic rock scene as a whole since he was one of only a few black rockers, and certainly the most significant. In Seattle and Greenwich Village, he had been playing to integrated audiences, while on the Chitlin Circuit, his audiences were made up entirely of African Americans. By looking at images of the Monterey Pop Festival as well as later concerts, whether they were at the legendary Fillmore auditoriums in New York City and San Francisco, Madison Square Garden or the Woodstock Festival, it is evident that Hendrix was playing for mostly white audiences. Ebony estimated that ninety percent of his fans belonged to the white, middleclass counterculture.43 This fact was picked up on by the mainstream white and African American press, in which Hendrix was portrayed as an outsider in the counterculture because of his race as well as an outsider in the African American music scene because of his audience, music and image. The racial makeup of The Experience was also a point of contention among some mainstream whites and African Americans.44 Though the counterculture was by no means free of racial prejudice, this does not appear to have been an issue with them as they were already listening to other integrated bands including Sly and the Family Stone and Booker T. and the MGs. Before Santana, another integrated band that was based in San Francisco, rose to fame after playing at the Woodstock Festival, they were playing at small venues in the Bay Area to audiences that were largely comprised of members of the counterculture.45 Mainstream whites had an issue with The Experience not so much because they were integrated, but because Mitchell and Redding adopted Hendrixs look, and because it was clear that Hendrix was the

42 43

Ibid., 198. Lacy J. Banks, Buddy Miles: Going Thru Changes, Ebony, December 1971, 76. 44 Cross, 170-1. 45 Charlton, 123.


leader and they were sidemen. In promotional material, Mitchell and Redding usually sported Afros, and they often stood or sat behind Hendrix.46 Mitchell and Reddings Afros were also an issue with some African Americans due to what the Afro represented. In the late 1960s, the Afro was a political statement and many African Americans sported them to demonstrate their pride in their African heritage.47 Therefore, it was unacceptable to them that two white musicians should wear their hair in this way. One member of the mainstream press who covered the Monterey Pop Festival was journalist Michael Lydon of Newsweek. However, his review was never published, and Lydon would later leave the magazine and go on to write for the New York Times and Rolling Stone. In 2003, he compiled the articles he wrote about the Rock Revolution, published or unpublished, into a book.48 Lydons very short review of The Experiences set at the festival is filled with racial stereotypes. It is very telling about the type of press Hendrix could expect to receive in his home country in the future since the band had received so little press in the United States at this point and therefore they probably would not have known what to expect from the media. Lydon began his review by describing Hendrix as ...a strange-looking fellow.... He is both curiously beautiful and as wildly grotesque as the proverbial Wild Man of Borneo.49 This description would never have been applied to any white performer at the Monterey Pop Festival. The term Wild Man of Borneo, which Hendrix had already been called by the London press, has its roots in freak shows, which were popular in the United States from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. In these shows, people with physical deformities or unusual talents and ethnic minorities who were said to be from faraway lands were put on display for mostly white
46 47

Okney, 203. Cross, 170-1. 48 Michael Lydon, Flashbacks: Eyewitness Accounts of the Rock Revolution, 1964-1974 (New York: Routledge, 2003), x. 49 Ibid., 35-6.


audiences.50 The original Wild Men of Borneo were two white brothers, Waino and Plutano, who were said to be from Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia, although they were actually from Connecticut. Waino and Plutano were mentally disabled dwarves and they were featured in the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the late nineteenth century. A brochure on the brothers that was available to audiences at the Barnum and Bailey Circus advised readers that Borneo was ...inhabited by a race of humanity very little different from the animal creation. 51 Once promoters of freak shows and rival circuses learned about Waino and Plutano, Wild Men of Borneo became commonplace features in these shows. Unlike Waino and Plutano, the other Wild Men invariably were black, which perpetuated the stereotype of nonwhites as wild.52 Thus, by calling Hendrix a Wild Man of Borneo, Lydon was using an old racial stereotype to describe him, separating him from the white performers and audience members. Lydon also described Hendrix as playing with a savage wildness...53 Once again he was connecting Hendrix to longstanding Anglo-American stereotypes of nonwhites as wild, uncivilized and savage. Historically, Anglo-Americans saw themselves very differently from black Africans. While they were descended from civilized Europeans, blacks had come from Africa, a continent that Anglo-Americans believed to be lacking civilization and religion. This belief was used by white American slave traders and owners to justify their enslavement of blacks.54


Nathanael West and others, Freaks in Late Modernist American Culture (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006), 3. 51 Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 157. 52 Ibid., 157. 53 Lydon, Flashbacks, 36. 54 James Campbell and James Oakes, The Invention of Race: Rereading White Over Black in Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, eds. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 146.


In early 1968, Hendrix and his band relocated to the United States. Hendrix split his time between Los Angeles and New York City, where he would remain for the rest of his life apart from touring and occasional trips to London.55 He did not receive much press from the mainstream media, which is not surprising given the fact that mainstream Americans did not have the same reverence for psychedelic rock music that the counterculture did. However, when he was the subject of mainstream press stories, his race was almost always mentioned.56 In 1968, Lydon once again reviewed The Experience, this time at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The review, which appeared in the New York Times, was entitled Jimi Hendrix: The Black Elvis?57 In his review, Lydon elaborated on his title by writing, The black Elvis? He is that in England. In America James Brown is, but only for Negroes; could Hendrix become that for American whites?58 Lydon was wondering whether Hendrix would ultimately ascend to an Elvis-like level of fame, but articulated his success in terms of race. He acknowledged that Hendrixs audience was largely white, and that Hendrix could never reach the level of fame and success Brown enjoyed among African Americans. In his essay Blackness Scuzed: Jimi Hendrixs (In)visible Legacy in Heavy Metal, Jeremy Wells also points out the irony of Lydons review: There is a clear irony involved in terming Hendrix the black Elvis or designating him a black version of a white man who, since the inception of his own career, had been labelled a white version of a black man.59 In a similar vein, the mainstream press had trouble acknowledging Hendrixs success. An article that appeared in an October 1970 issue of Life magazine about his and his friend and fellow rock musician Janis Joplins recent deaths referred to Hendrix as a poor black.60

55 56

Cross, 210. Okney, 192. 57 Lydon, Jimi Hendrix: The Black Elvis?, D19. 58 Ibid., D20. 59 Wells, 51. 60 Albert Goldman, Drugs and Death in the Run-down World of Rock Music, Life, 16 October, 1970, 32.


Though Hendrix came from humble origins, he certainly could not have been classified as poor when he died, leaving behind an estate that was estimated to be valued at several million dollars.61 Additionally, The Experiences record label in the United States, Warner-Reprise, purportedly signed the band for $150,000, which was the largest amount they had ever signed a new artist for at that time.62 Therefore, it is likely that the storys author, popular culture critic Albert Goldman, was unwilling to think that African Americans could be successful in their careers. When Hendrix returned to the United States in 1968 as a rock star, he was not given very much attention by the African American press either. The United States that Hendrix had returned to was much different from the United States he had left in 1966 as the Vietnam War had progressed and opposition against it had increased, the counterculture had grown, and the civil rights movement had taken a dramatic turn.63 The new turn in the civil rights movement was the aspect that proved to play the largest part in Hendrixs career. From its beginnings in the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement fought segregation and disenfranchisement through nonviolent direct action including sit-ins, marches and boycotts. The movement was based in the South and was lead by organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Convention, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. At the beginning, it had been led by African Americans, but by the mid-1960s white students had involved themselves in the movement, many of them taking leadership roles.64

61 62

Cross, 347. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ebony, May 1968, 105. 63 Star Spangled Hendrix, 64 Anna Stubblefield, Ethics Along the Color Line (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 58.


Many African Americans were frustrated by the lack of progress and the inclusion of whites in leadership roles, and the movement began to fragment by the mid-1960s. Some still wanted to integrate into white American society and to use a non-violent approach to achieve this goal. Others became involved in the Black Power movement, which built upon Malcolm Xs philosophy, and was led by organizations like the Black Panther Party, which was founded in Oakland, California in 1966.65 An article appearing in Ebony in March 1969 illustrated the differences between the early civil rights movement and the Black Power movement: Older civil rights leaders, frightened by the negative reaction of the white establishment publicly condemned black power. On the other hand, many blacks particularly the young, openly embraced the new concepts that held the promise of providing an alternative road to social and psychological emancipation for the black man. What was clear was that the black consciousness thrust was not just a question of gaining more rights for the Negro as other civil rights movements in the past. It was and more importantly so a revolutionary cultural concept that demanded a reexamination of the very core of the value system and social behavior of white America. The current theories underlying development of a black community required a new sense of black awareness and pride in Afro-American heritage.66 Thus, instead of trying to fit into white society and mould themselves into white perceptions of African Americans, those who supported the Black Power movement took pride in their African heritage and wanted racial self-determination. They used violence to accomplish their goals if necessary, in contrast to the early civil rights movement. Within the music industry, many African American musicians embraced the new movement and subsequently made changes to their music to demonstrate their support.67 Many removed all musical elements that might have been perceived as white from their music, replacing them with African American and African elements. However, the blues, an authentically African American musical genre, was rejected by supporters of the Black Power

65 66

Ibid., 58-8. Alvin F. Poussaint, A Psychiatrist Looks at Black Power, Ebony, March 1969, 142. 67 Werner, 119.


movement because of its connection to slavery as well as the numerous white rock bands who were incorporating blues elements into their rock music, which eventually resulted in the development of blues rock.68 Funk music appeared during this era and it exemplified the goals of the Black Power movement. Funk was basically soul music with the addition of African elements such as syncopated bass lines, polyrhythms and short vocal phrases.69 Many African American soul musicians made the switch to funk, including James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, though they were racially integrated, and George Clinton. Brown however was the most notable musician to do so. In the late 1960s, Brown embraced a blacker sound and he also incorporated racial pride into his lyrics, particularly in his song Say It Loud (Im Black, Im Proud). The song was released in 1968 and became an anthem for the Black Power movement, which Brown endorsed, publicly supporting the Black Panther Party.70 The song addressed the situation of African Americans and featured a call-and-response chorus, a characteristic of gospel and the blues, in which Brown sang Say it loud! and a group of children responded with Im black, Im proud!71 For many musicians including Brown, the switch to funk came at the expense of losing much of their white audience because although soul music appealed both musically and lyrically to many whites, funk did not.72 The switch from soul to funk also reflected exactly what was happening in the civil rights movement. Soul music, particularly Motown as was already discussed, exemplified the goal of the early civil rights movement to integrate into white society since it appealed to both African Americans and whites. Funk on the other hand, with its largely

68 69

Ibid., 119. Charlton, 156. 70 Werner, 116. 71 Ibid. ,140. 72 Ibid., 138.


black audience, its African and African American musical elements, and its lyrics emphasizing black empowerment reflected the goals of the Black Power movement. At a time when many young African American musicians were embracing their African heritage, Hendrix was perceived as doing just the opposite due to his white audience, music and style of dress. Unlike Brown and other African American musicians, Hendrix publicly refused to endorse the Black Power movement or forge a connection with the Black Panther Party, although it has been acknowledged that he privately donated money to the Panthers during the last year of his life after he was repeatedly pressured by the group to do so.73 However, due to his stance on the Panthers, it seems that if Hendrix had not been pressured to make a donation, he would not have done so. Hendrix was constantly asked about the Panthers in interviews as journalists, the majority of whom were white, believed that he should naturally feel part of the movement due to his race.74 An interview in British music magazine Melody Maker in February 1968 reveals exactly how Hendrix felt about the Black Power movement. When he was asked what he thought about Black Power he replied, I dont think about it. Oh, theres a lot of silly talk on both sides.75 After the interviewer asked him if he was not automatically involved in the movement since he was African American, Hendrix told him, I dont feel involved. I dont look at things in terms of races. I look at things in terms of people.76 Hendrix never deviated on his position on the Panthers, at least in public, during his lifetime. In a Rolling Stone interview that took place more than two years after the Melody Maker interview, Hendrix reiterated the same view. In the story, John Burks, his interviewer, mentioned that he had heard that Hendrix had forged ties with the Panthers. Hendrix replied, I

Cross, 273. Ibid., 273. 75 Mike Hennessey, The Melody Maker Interview, Melody Maker, February 1968, accessed 14 March 2011, 76 Ibid.,


heard about that too. In Rolling Stone. Tell me all about it.77 Burks concluded the section of the interview that dealt with race with Jimi Hendrix does not aim for one color or group. He digs all colors and all peoples. He wants that known.78 This interview and the Melody Maker interview perfectly demonstrate why Hendrix would not support the Panthers. It was not due to his style of music or that he feared that he would lose his white audience, but because he saw all races as equals, which was a very progressive view at the time. In May 1968, a profile of Hendrix, one of only a few that appeared in the African American press, was featured in Ebony.79 As with many articles in the white mainstream press, the Ebony feature, rather surprisingly, is filled with racial stereotypes. While the use of racial stereotypes in the white press served to distinguish Hendrix and his blackness from his white audience, stereotyping was used in Ebony to reject Hendrix as an African American. The article began with a description of Hendrix: Even in repose he looks like a cross between Bob Dylan and the Wild Man of Borneo: his hair is a foot long, uncombed and stabs the air in every direction around a heavily pimpled face. Hes always swathed in such things as a grimy old British military jacket, purple velvet pants and a goat hair vest, and lately he has taken to wearing a floppy hat thats banded with brass rings and filigrees.80 Once again Hendrix was called the Wild Man of Borneo. Given the terms origins, which were discussed earlier, it is rather odd that an African American magazine would use it to describe an African American. However, Ebonys use of the term can be perceived as a rejection of Hendrix as an authentic African American. The magazine did not see Hendrix as one of their own, but as an oddity who, because of his image, did not quite fit in.


John Burks, Hendrix: The End of a Beginning Maybe, Rolling Stone, 19 March 1970, accessed 14 March 2011, 78 Ibid., 79 Cross, 239. 80 The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 103.


As Lydon did in the New York Times, Ebony also used the term black Elvis to describe Hendrix.81 However, this term had different connotations in the mainstream and African American press. In the mainstream press, it was used to predict that Hendrix would become a superstar. While it did acknowledge that Hendrix was in fact black, its use in Ebony can be perceived as a rejection of his music. Elvis and the other white rockers of the 1950s were not popular with African Americans, especially black rockers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. African Americans felt that Elvis and the others had appropriated their music, sold it to white audiences and got rich off it. Due to the racial segregation of the music charts, Elvis made more money and gained more fame than any of his African American counterparts.82 By calling Hendrix a black Elvis, Ebony saw Hendrix as selling out since the magazine was aware of his large white fan base. Similarly, an article in Jet about Hendrixs death also rejected him as an authentic African American: Jimi Hendrix, high school dropout and ex-paratrooper, went out as he lived swinging. The millionaire star electric guitarist started in the Black thing as a sideman to such stars as B. B. King, Little Richard (Penniman), Joey Dee, King Curtis, and Ike and Tina Turner. He went on to launch the wild, white, acid-rock-pop-era...83 In her article, Black like This: Race, Generation, and Rock in the Post -Civil Rights Era, Maureen Mahon writes that a taste for rock music classifies an African American as someone who has... deliberately abandoned black culture....84 This Jet article does exactly that by defining Hendrix as a rock star, while defining black music as that which was played by the rhythm and blues musicians listed.

81 82

Ibid., 103. Werner, 266. 83 Chester Higgins, How Rock Star Jimi Hendrix Lived and Died, Jet, 8 October 1970, 56. 84 Maureen Mahon, Black Like This: Race, Generation, and Rock in the Post -Civil Rights Era, American Ethnologist 27, no. 2 (May 2000): 285.


Hendrixs music reiterated the point he made in interviews that he did not want to be defined by his race or any other label, but as an individual. Though the majority of his lyrics were apolitical, they were also the means he used to voice his opinions when he felt the need to do so.85 In If 6 Was 9, which appeared on The Experiences second album, Axis: Bold as Love, Hendrix embraced the image that so many mainstream whites and African Americans did not like with the lyric But Im gonna wave my freak flag high... High!86 He believed that race truly was not very important and that it should not be used as the primary way to define someone. Instead, he believed that people should embrace their individuality. In conclusion, in the eyes of both mainstream whites and African Americans, Hendrix challenged notions of racial authenticity. Hendrix was accepted by the white, middle-class counterculture, but not by mainstream whites and African Americans. Many African Americans did not see him as authentically black due to his inclusion in the counterculture, his style of dress and his music. During the late-1960s, many African American musicians used their music to express their racial pride and looked to African music as one such way to do so, while simultaneously removing white elements from their music. Hendrix however did not do this, and though he often drew on the blues, he continued to play psychedelic rock music, a genre that was regarded as white. Hendrixs refusal to support the Black Power movement also furthered his distance from the African American community. Most stories about him in the mainstream and African American press featured racial stereotypes. In the mainstream press, stereotypes were used to distinguish Hendrix and his blackness from his white audience, while in the African American press, stereotypes were used as a means to reject Hendrix as an authentic African American. In an era where race played such a large role in the lives of many Americans, Hendrix

Star Spangled Hendrix, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, If 6 Was 9, Axis: Bold as Love, Reprise, 1967.


saw past this. Many of his contemporaries could have learned from his progressive view of race, as can many people today. Epilogue In July 1969 The Experience broke up and Hendrix put together a series of bands, most of them racially integrated, though he would never record another studio album.87 In the last year of his life, he began to feel increasingly self-conscious about the racial makeup of his audience.88 He made an effort to appeal to the African American community, though he did so on his own terms. He never publicly supported the Black Panther Party or the Black Power movement because he believed that they advocated violence, which he did not want to support. However, he began to embrace more black elements in his music, and to tone down his look and act. His appearance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 marked the beginning of the new Hendrix.89 Many African Americans thought of Hendrix as a clown for the white counterculture, but at Woodstock, he was dressed rather conservatively for him, in a white fringed shirt, bellbottom jeans and a pink headband. He also simply stood on the stage while performing instead of going into his usual theatrics. Perhaps Hendrixs most notable effort to be accepted by African Americans was his creation of an all-black band, the Band of Gypsys, in late 1969. Hendrix, along with his old army bandmate Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, played psychedelic rock but infused their music with funk, blues, and rhythm and blues. However, the Band of Gypsys was short-lived, breaking up in January 1970.90 Despite his efforts, when Hendrix died on September 18, 1970 at age twenty-seven, his position in the African American community had not changed. In recent years though, African Americans have
87 88

Cross, 261. Ibid., 273. 89 Pete Fornatale, Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock and How it Changed a Generation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 269-70. 90 Cross, 289.


started to embrace Hendrix as one of their own. In a 2002 issue of Ebony that was dedicated to celebrating Black Music Month, Hendrix was listed as an innovator of black music.91


The Innovators, Ebony, June 2002, 169.


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