Rock history: Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” released 49 years ago

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Almost half a century ago, Jimi Hendrix re-recorded Bob Dylan’s 1967 release, “All Along the Watchtower.” The significance of Hendrix’s version is that it represents his highest-charting song in the United States. “All Along the Watchtower” climbed higher than Hendrix’s other famous songs, including ” Purple Haze” and “Foxey Lady.”

Hendrix in brief

Hendrix honed his guitar playing skills on what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” He backed blues musicians and formed his own bands. Multiple bios of Hendrix detail how in the early 1960s, he enlisted in the Army, and was injured in a parachute jump. Even serving in the Armed Forces, Hendrix managed to put a band together.

However, it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler that Hendrix indulged in the psychedelic rock/heavy metal for which he became known. In his short life, Hendrix only recorded three albums with the Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Are You Experienced?” “Axis: Bold as Love,” and “Electric Ladyland.”

Hendrix lived in London for a while and began to make his name there. Not ironically, his songs performed better on British charts than American ones.

While Hendrix was a star among rock fans and musicians, his harshest critics were in Harlem. According to an article at CNN.com, “Hendrix aggressively reached out to black audiences during the last two years of his life.”

Unfortunately for Hendrix, in an era of racial upheaval, continuing to play what was viewed as “white” music equaled betrayal. In retrospect, however, the last two years of his life meant that the rejection occurred when the musician was between 25 and 27 years old. Rejection by an entire (or nearly) community seems harsh for someone so young.

The rest however, was rock music history. Hendrix’s incomparable shows in London and his Woodstock performance wowed audiences and carved the musician’s place in rock history.

“All Along the Watchtower”: Jimi Hendrix

To appreciate Hendrix’s cover, I re-listened to Dylan’s original. Dylan’s soundscape can be described as light and folk rock-ish. It is full of nuanced acoustic guitar and harmonica. Without lyrics, I could imagine a band like America playing “All Along the Watchtower.”

On the other hand, Hendrix’s version is imbued with a definite hard rock edge. Not only are the primary sounds electric, the drums thunder in a torrential fury. The bass has a definite presence. Hendrix even adds words: “hey” and “some kinda” stand out. The way Hendrix sings adds an energy and fervor to the song. Without taking anything away from Dylan, it is easy to hear why Hendrix’s version became a classic.

The tragedy of Hendrix is not just the manner of his death, but his age when he died, and the way he was treated in some segments of the U.S.  At any rate, Hendrix’s highest charting song was a cover song. “All Along the Watchtower” reached No. 20 on America’s Top 40. It was his only song to chart that high. The others stalled at lower positions.

“All Along the Watchtower” is found on “Electric Ladyland” (1968), Hendrix’s last album. The single was released in the U.S. Sept. 2, 1968, and reached No. 20 Sept. 21, 1968.

 

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