Peter Case

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Hendrix, The Poet

 

to David Ensminger, for Joe Carter:

In response to your question: “What do I believe are the poetic qualities of Hendrix’s lyrics?”

First of all, he created memorable, and dynamic original phrases of speech, blazing lines that stick in your head forever. I think he had more of these in three or four albums than the Beatles, for example, made in their whole run:

“‘ ’scuse me while I kiss the sky!” (from purple haze)

” I know what I want but I just don’t know/ how to go about gettin’ it” (from manic depression)

“will it burn me if I touch the sun?”   (from love or confusion)

‘there ain’t no life nowhere!”   and

“”i don’t live today/ maybe tomorrow, I just can’t say” (from I don’t live today)

‘let me stand next to your fire’  and

‘move over, rover, and let Jimi take over!”  (from fire)

castles made of sand/ fall in the sea/ eventually  (from castles made of sand)

“aw shucks/ if my daddy could see me now’   (from up from the skies)

”if all the hippies cut off all their hair/ i don’t care/ I don’t care”  and

“if six turned out to be nine/ I don’t mind/ I don’t mind
’cause I’ve got my own world to live through
and I ain’t gonna copy you”            (from if 6 was 9)

’she’s walkin’ through the clouds/ with a circus smile/ running wild’   (from little wing)

This just touches the surface, off the top of my head.

These are great powerful, forever memorable and meaningful original phrases, with a rhythm and punch present, in the best American tradition, which often has a punchline-type diction, and often lands with an accent of sound and meaning on the last word of the phrase. It’s the “American Sound” and Hendrix has his own version of it, big-time.

2) Secondly, he used the poets tools. Jimi was a natural poet. But, I think he was helped in his quest to write great songs by studying strong sources, that themselves were tapped into poetic tradition.  These would be:

A) Exceptional soul music songsmiths like Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Don Covay.  From these he learned how to form the premise of a song around a powerful, but simple idea, with a catchiness, and simplicity of phrasing. The imagery in these writers work is reflected in JH’s songs  like ‘Remember”  ’You Got Me Floating” ‘Little Miss Lover’.  Is it poetic? I believe this type of writing at it’s best IS. Also, he knew Chuck Berry and Little Richard, both for the great SOUND of their words, and for their INNOVATION. Chuck Berry is a chronicler of American Culture and in his way, Hendrix was too, (though of a more psychedelic era.) Little Richard spoke in tongues “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bop bop” (from tutti frutti)  Hendrix excelled at this, in all of the above examples and many others.

B) Bob Dylan: a huge and liberating influence on JH,  “Songs can be about anything”.  Dylan was a path to the Beats for Hendrix, using the poetic tools of vivid imagery, alliteration, assonance, dissonance, as well as his art of twisting phrases that Jimi adapted.   Listen to the album “Blonde On Blonde,” to hear all these poetic tools being used. It was reportedly one of Hendrix’s favorites, along with “Highway 61 Revisited.” He learned a lot from these, eventually covering ‘Like A Rolling Stone” in his US debut.   Dylan would say “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”   which could easily be a Hendrix line.  Colorful mad twists of rhythmic language.

C) The great blues singers and songwriters: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and others.  He topped the imagery in these writers most forceful material, in songs like “Voodoo Child”  ”If 6 was 9″  and others. It’s a strain that runs all through his work. Rhythm conveying emotion, mythic bragging imagery like JH’s “knock down a mountain with the palm of my hand’ etc is from songs like Dixon’s ‘Hoochie Koochie Man’, or Muddy Water’s “Just To Be With You”

And intimate talk like Jimi’s acoustic 12 string version of “Hear My Train A-Coming”  (be sure to watch this on  youtube if you haven’t yet) (a great performance of a great piece, his emotion so close to the surface he nearly cries, common for him but very clear here) (great poetic lines like “I’m gonna buy this town/ and put it in my shoe”)

I think it’s important to recognize how deeply JH studied and played into the tradition he was coming up in. He made sure he knew EVERYTHING about R+B, Blues, and Rock and Roll. He knew the songs, the licks, the grooves, and he knew about what went into making up the WORDS. He played with everybody who was great, and he listened and learned intensely.

I think Wind Cries Mary is one of his best: Mary is his mother (tho’ her name was Lucille) also the Virgin Mary; a feminine deity or principle he looks to for protection.  His sorrow in the wake of events leads him to feel the whole creation is calling out for this missing feminine spirit.

It’s imagery that creates a dimension of feeling that goes beyond normal songwriting: I call that poetic.
After all the jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on down the street
Footprints dressed in red
And the wind whispers Mary

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind, it cries Mary

The traffic lights they turn up blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
‘Cause the life that lived is, is dead
And the wind screams Mary

Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past
And with his crutch, it’s old age, and it’s wisdom
It whispers no, this will be the last
And the wind cries Mary

I hope this helps you as you consider Jimi Hendrix the poet. I could go on a lot more than this. It’s an interesting subject. Have you see the book Cherokee Mist with so much of his writing in it? I recommend it. Another great one, maybe the best book about Hendrix, is Greg Tate’s “Midnight Lightning.”

3 comments

  1. I agree with you. Jimi Hendrix was a Dylan fan too. And he took that abstract sensibility and poetry to his big sound in his songwriting . Hybrid . The blues was still the deep center core. But then he made his own thing out of that – what he loved in sound and song. Original all the way. And yes – totally poetic. And lines of verse that are are part of our brains. ( If there are brains these days.) A great piece ! Cheers PC. “there ain’t no life – no where ! ” he sang that right ?

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