Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (1971)
Jimi Hendrix Experience
“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is the last song on the last album – Electric Ladyland – Jimi Hendrix recorded before he died tragically on September 18, 1970, after ingesting too many prescription sleeping pills and too much red wine. It was also the very last song Jimi performed live, just 12 brief days before his death at a girlfriend’s flat in London.
He was all of 27 – a wild, bright light snatched from us in all his power and glory. “Voodoo Child” is a song that both celebrates and mourns one of the most influential, awe-inspiring, creative geniuses of our time.
It’s fitting the swan song of the undisputed champion of the Rock riff is an explosion of raw, slashing guitar prowess – barbed and furious – all flowing through an upside-down, right-handed Fender Stratocaster as if it were plugged directly into the heart of God (or the Devil, depending on who you are).
Jimi is the “Voodoo Child,” and the song sums up the man – an extraordinary talent who lived a fast, frenzied and sometimes violent life that ended suddenly and tragically. Just listen to the song. It’s all there.
The voodoo child unleashes his sublime fury
From the first notes – stretched and distorted by Jimi’s heavy use of the wah-wah pedal – you can feel a storm coming, gale-force winds gathering. He conjures up a wild mix of Blues, R&B, Psychedelia and of course Rock-N-Roll, all surging from his almighty guitar. The opening is restrained, stark and cold, as Jimi scratches at palm-muted strings.
But when he hits the main riff, the whole thing blows up like a napalm strike – dropping out of the sky and engulfing the ground in flames. It’s some of the edgiest, nastiest guitar mayhem with which we (mere mortals) have ever been blessed.
Then a towering, mystical voice from high above the scorched earth, as if from Olympus:
Well, I stand up next to a mountain
And I chop it down with the edge of my hand
Well, I pick up all the pieces and make an island
Might even raise a little sand
The lyrics – and distant, muffled vocal aura – sustain the unbridled swagger of Jimi’s gravity-defying guitar work. Is he casting himself as a new breed of black Rock-N-Roll revolutionary – tearing down the old Anglo order and creating a new freewheelin’ utopian society in its place? Perhaps. And might it be a more racially tolerant society? The song’s lofty aspirations are a monument to the transformative vision of a surging musical genre.
Voodoo, a religion known for its magical ritual and healing capabilities, can be traced back to its tribal roots in Africa – as can Jazz, Blues, Gospel and by way of musical DNA, Rock-N-Roll. Of course, blues masters like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King who had such a strong influence on Jimi were all black, and they created a musical form rooted in the oral tradition of slavery – steeped in sorrow and despair.
There’s a reason they call it the Blues, and these guys lived it through merit-less persecution and discrimination.
Jimi, born Johnny Allen Hendrix, rose to greatness on the “chitlin’ circuit” during a period of explosive racial tension and profound inequality, a time when white and black musicians were just starting to play on the same stages together (to the thrill of increasingly desegregated audiences).
Prevalent white racist reaction was to condemn any movement toward racial overlap, or cooperation, heaven forbid. It wasn’t uncommon to hear Rock-N-Roll referred to pejoratively as “voodoo music” or “jungle music.” The rich musical bloodline of Elvis and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry was labeled “evil,” “satanic,” “malevolent” and “orgiastic,” and that was on a good day, after church.
So Jimi (a proud black man) served up – with alien-esque talent and sexually stoked bravado – exactly what the racism of the time railed against: The insidious intermingling of black and white. Here was this wild-eyed, extraordinarily gifted black man – dressed like some interplanetary Liberace – blowing the minds of white youth across America. Like an acid-eating, fire-breathing descendent of Socrates, he was reviled for “corrupting” young minds, and he reveled in it.
For Jimi, it wasn’t corruption at all, but rather liberation.
The virtuoso “Voodoo Child” laid down one of the biggest, baddest, most flamboyant “fuck you’s” in rock history. Black was beautiful, as Jimi knew, and he presented it as such.
‘Cause I’m a voodoo child
Lord knows I’m a voodoo child baby
Unrivaled musical talent was the great equalizer for Jimi. He once said: “I wish they’d had electric guitars in cotton fields back in the good old days. A whole lot of things would’ve been straightened out.”
On Live at the Fillmore East –recorded December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970 – Jimi refers to “Voodoo Child” as the Black Panthers’ national anthem. The Black Panther Party, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, was a major force behind the “Black Power” movement in the late-’60s and ’70s. The Panthers initially formed to protect black neighborhoods from police brutality and other kinds of racial discrimination.
The exact meaning of “Voodoo Child” is up for debate, but what makes this song a truly brilliant piece of Rock-N-Roll is the raw passion, abandon, fury and unabashed irreverence with which Jimi performs, both vocally and instrumentally. It’s as if he’s waited a lifetime to get the message off his chest – pumping dark, primordial rage through the strings of his guitar. There’s an artistic vengeance in “Voodoo Child” that remains unmatched since his tragic death some 40 years ago.
Thanks Jimi, for taking us to another place. The world and its possibilities are smaller without you.
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- “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” was distilled from the 15-minute studio monster-jam, “Voodoo Chile” with Steve Winwood on organ, Jack Casady on bass (also bassist for Jefferson Airplane) and Mitch Mitchell on drums.
- “Slight Return” refers to the shorter song’s initial role as a reprise (or a return to the original theme) for the longer “Voodoo Chile,” which is featured earlier on the Electric Ladyland double album.
- The single reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart in 1970. The Hendrix “Voodoo Child” solo comes in at #11 in Guitar World’s “100 Greatest Guitar Solos.”
- Hendrix frequently played “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” live – notable performances include Woodstock and the legendary 1969 Royal Albert Hall show. Long versions could extend 18 minutes (into deep space).
Also by Jimi Hendrix Experience on SongMango.com:
- All Along The WatchtowerJimi strings the coal-fire-snorting guitar down your spine, feeding each sound directly into your central nervous system.