Music played a large role in American anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, expanding protesters’ message beyond just disagreement with a specific war to a broad, public polemic against all violence. Woodstock (August 15-18, 1969) was the capstone of ongoing protests by young, often white and middle class Americans against the use of violence generally, the Vietnam War specifically, and other ideas that they associated with “the establishment” (their parents’ and grandparents’ generation who were in charge of the social, political, and governmental structures that led the country into this morass in the first place) and all things the establishment stood for: the American Dream, being uptight or “square,” capitalism, anti-drug use, monogamy and heterosexuality, and—of course—anti-rock music.

The power of Woodstock and the music by rock and folk musicians who performed there lay in uniting a large group of people (400,000 attendees plus more who sympathized but couldn’t attend), articulating a message contrary to that espoused by people in traditional positions of power, and doing so in a way that was pleasant, persuasive, and enticing for a certain group: young people liked this kind of music and were drawn to it, whereas older Americans were not.

Performers included rock bands (Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Crosby Stills Nash & Young), world music and fusion groups (Santana, Ravi Shankar, Sly & the Family Stone, Blood Sweat & Tears), and folk singers (Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie).

Jimi Hendrix played the last set of the festival (approximately 130 minutes long), and his solo performance of The Star-Spangled Banner (the US national anthem) was particularly powerful because it was both an extraordinary display of his skill and creativity as a guitarist as well as a musical protest—it audibly and prominently distorted the melody and form of national anthem, and in the process re-purposed it from a bland, patriotic gesture into a personal claim: “There is room in America for me, for people like me, for my ideas, and for me to shape America into the country I want it to become.”

Coming on the heels of the Civil Rights movement (1919-68), the assassinations of Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and in the middle of general dissatisfaction with the country, Hendrix’s performance made a powerful statement.

Kaepernick kneeling
Colin Kaepernick, kneeling at center

US football player Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem during the fall 2016 NFL season can be seen in the same context. As a racial minority in the US, Kaepernick listened to the anthem, saw the display of celebration and pride that it encompassed, and found those to be in dissonance with his experience as an American and the experience of other Americans. Rather than stand during the playing of the anthem at San Francisco 49ers games, he took a knee on the sideline, causing uproar for viewers who took his gesture to be a direct affront and insult to members of the military. The fact that his gesture could be interpreted so differently speaks to the powerful place that the anthem occupies in people’s imaginations and how strongly they associate the musical sounds with political ideas.

Kaepernick’s gesture also encouraged a broader re-examination of the Banner itself, which was written by Francis Scott Key following the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. (It became the US national anthem in 1931.) The song has four verses, but we typically only sing the first in public events today. The third verse, which celebrates the deaths of slaves who were promised freedom by the British if they defected to the Royal ships in the harbor but were killed by American fusillade, makes the song problematic.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Because the national anthem is a powerful symbol of the nation it represents, a person who questions it or seems to lack complete faith in that symbol can be interpreted as disrespectful, not just of the song but of the nation itself. This conflation is an example of false logic, obviously, but also the fact that such a reaction is possible shows just how effective the song is as a piece of propaganda. Kaepernick’s career seems to be over as a result of his protest, further underscoring the weight people ascribe to the anthem as a patriotic symbol.