The Star Spangled Banner
Music: Based on an Irish drinking song
Lyrics: Francis Scott Key
Original Artist: Francis Scott Key
Albums: Live Phish 15
Historian: Ellis Godard
Francis Scott Key wrote the U.S. National Anthem (to the tune of an Irish drinking song) on September 20, 1814, while watching the defense of Fort McHenry against a British attack. Only the first two stanzas (of eight) are commonly sung. The other six narrate an earnest search in the war-torn night sky for the flag, symbolically and metaphorically a people’s hope and inspiration in a dark time. But those first two stanzas merely pose the question: Can you see it, there, in the explosive flashes of light? Isn’t that our flag, our hope?
Over 150 years later, Jimi Hendrix revised the song for a new era. As the sun began to rise at Woodstock, the lasting impression was delivered from an otherwise empty stage, to throngs of collapsed people. Hendrix’s raging instrumental histrionics symbolized – and later served as a metaphor for – that same people’s search, from the darkness of the Vietnam War and civil rights conflicts and toward a hoped-for future. Without words, Jimi asked those same questions: Can you see it, out there, in the darkness sprawled across Yasgur’s farm? That is our hope.
Many Phish fans were familiar with Hendrix’s version (and perhaps with John Popper’s reprise at the less-historic Woodstock II) and were surprised when Phish performed the song a cappella. But by sticking to those two conventional stanzas, in four-part harmony taboot, Phish did what they do best: delivering ecstatic frivolity without being undignified or insincere.
Although it seems like a natural encore, the song has opened and closed first sets and appeared in the middle of second sets. The first four versions were difficult to hear over the audience’s excitement, particularly at the end, but by 11/8/96 and 11/19/96 the novelty had waned and the band’s control of the song had solidified. There is not much variation in the performances, but two – 11/19/96 and 11/27/96 – are notable for preceding “Fire” (also performed by Hendrix), as is 10/21/96 for opening the MSG show, 7/4/99 for its Independence Day fireworks (explosive flashes of light), and 5/31/09 performed from the pitcher's mound at Fenway Park.
Phish also performed the song at venues where the song was more important than they were, including at Philadelphia Flyers games 5/18/97 and 12/1/97, and before a UVM basketball game on 3/13/04. For hard-core Phish fans at those sports events, one could ask those same questions, not about the audience, but about the band: Can you see it, even without their vacuums and “Tweezers” and skyscrapers and lights? That is our inspiration, our flag of hope.
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