For this week I wan to talk about one of favorite songs of all time, “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix.
Jimi Hendrix was arguably one of the greatest guitar players of all time, and one can only imagine what more he could have done if he had become a member of the infamous 27 Club. But, what he did leave us with was an incredible selection of great music, including “Little Wing.” In typical Hendrix style, you really can’t gather the meaning of the song just by reading the lyrics, you have to experience them.
The 1960s saw the rise of one of the most well-known counter cultures: hippies. The hippie movement was “founded” (perhaps not a great word as it lacked true organization) on the basis on non-conformity and raging against the social norms of the time. Their values were rooted in peace, love, and pleasure, which was especially pertinent during the Vietnam era. What set them apart from other anti-war movements, however, was that
they were explicitly non-political. Their disdain for the “establishment” was so great that they refused to play the game, so to speak. To be involved would be to become corrupted by the vices of those in power. Instead, the hippie movement focused on dissent through personal expression. They dressed differently, wore their hair differently, spoke differently, and (more importantly for this post) listened to different music and used different drugs.
Perhaps the peak of the hippie counterculture came in the summer of 1967, which many of us now refer to as the “summer of love.” The summer of love saw the first large scale rock music festivals, including the Monterey Pop Festival, which took place from June 16-18 in 1967. The Monterey Pop Festival embodied the many themes of the hippies, and it was the most promoted and attended music festival of its time. In fact, it served as the blueprint to the very famous Woodstock music festival. The Monterey Pop Festival was a huge hit as it featured many major artists, and introduced the large crowds to some new ones. The festival marked the first time American crowds would hear The Who, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and (of course) Jimi Hendrix. It was at this festival that Hendrix was inspired to write “Little Wing.”
“Little Wing” is essentially a musical representation of Hendrix’s experience at the Monterey Pop Festival. The reason it is so cryptic is rather simple: drugs. It is no secret that Hendrix and many others at these rock festivals freely used drugs, especially psychedelic drugs like LSD. And, like many other musicians, Hendrix often found inspiration for songs in the visions he had as a result of the drugs. So, we need to consider the fact that “Little Wing” was written by someone trying to put into words that which cannot be. He was trying the capture the intangible. So while no one can ever claim that they fully understand “Little Wing,” we can take a look at the feelings it conveys.
The themes expressed in “Little Wing” are the same ones expressed by the hippies and the Monterey Pop Festival: peace, love, and pleasure. But, rather than try (and fail) to explain it in more detail, let me share the words of Hendrix himself:
“I got the idea like, when we were in Monterey and I was just looking at everything around. So I figured that I take everything I see around and put it maybe in the form of a girl maybe, somethin’ like that, you know, and call it ‘Little Wing’, and then it will just fly away. Everybody’s really flyin’ and they’re really in a nice mood, like the police and everybody was really, really great out there. So I just took all these things an put them in one very, very small little matchbox, you know, into a girl and then do it. It was very simple, but I like it though.”
I firmly believe that “Little Wing” is one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. The emotion is raw and the guitar playing is some of the most passionate I have every heard. I find that every time I listen to it, it feels like it’s the first time and I am filled with awe and wonder. I also enjoy finding different versions of Hendrix performing it or even other artists covering it. In case you’re interested, I would suggest any live version of Hendrix performing it, or the covers done by either Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton.