How Joanna Newsom Turned Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” into a Harp Masterpiece

on November 19, 2016, 9:00am

Feature Image by Virginia McCarthy and Cap Blackard

Cover Girl is a monthly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. As musicians throw around genres, tempos, styles, and intent, Nina Corcoran breaks down what makes them stand out. This week’s column looks at Joanna Newsom’s live harp cover of Jimi Hendrix’s R&B hit “Little Wing”.

For all the fame Woodstock Music & Arts Festival receives, the Monterey Pop Festival goes relatively undiscussed. The three-day festival was held from June 16th to 18th back in 1967 — two years before the first edition of Woodstock would take place. The California festival booked a lineup that still makes the heart skip a beat: The Who, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas & the Papas. With acts like that, crowd sizes ranged from 25,000 to 90,000 people. But most importantly, the festival embodied California as a theme: endless sun, relaxed atmospheres, and free love.

It was here that Jimi Hendrix began his climb up the American music scene. It was here that the Summer of Love truly began.

Monterey Pop Festival ushered a new appreciation for non-American acts, if only because it was the first time many people saw, and in turn heard, these international bands. It marked the first major American appearance for Jimi Hendrix Experience. The band left no stone unturned. Hendrix took several solos and passionately bantered between songs, but it was his rendition of “Wild Thing” that blew the crowd away. In the middle of an unpredictable rendition of the song, he kneeled over his guitar and poured lighter fluid over it, set it on fire, and smashed it into the stage repeatedly before throwing the shards into the audience.

Reflecting on this performance is crucial to understanding “Little Wing”, a single off Axis: Bold as Love that Hendrix would record in October of 1967 and then release that December. The song, one of Hendrix’s most popular and possibly his most famous slow number, was technically written the year it was recorded, but sources traced its origins back to the 1966 recording of “(My Girl) She’s a Fox”. That R&B song allowed Hendrix to play with his flourishes, trying guitar accompaniments that channeled Curtis Mayfield — a direct student-teacher moment given Mayfield showed him instrumental methods when he opened for Mayfield’s 1963 tour. Hendrix played with his effects. He played the song onstage in Greenwich Village, seeing how New York audiences of a newer mindset reacted to it. He let the song wring its emotions and then pushed it to do so again, but couldn’t find the final form. It wasn’t until a year later, there onstage at Monterey Pop Festival, that he found himself overcome with inspiration by the world and its current state.

“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,” said Hendrix. “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 and 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.”

That simplicity (paired with an acid trip) is what gives “Little Wing” its power. In just over two minutes, he sends a doozy out into the world. His lackadaisical tempo guides an R&B ballad down a river, rocking lightly. Drums clean up at their edges. A glockenspiel rings out, but its echoes are swallowed, supporting his words but backing into the shadows so as to give the illusion of a shimmer on his lyrics. Then, of course, there’s his guitar, bursting with soul at every moment of the song.

It’s easy to fall for Hendrix’s idealization of feminine ideals. The song’s figure, a guardian angel-style figure, represents everything and nothing at once — a messenger of happiness (“A thousand smiles she gives to me free”), of consolation (“It’s alright, she says it’s alright”), of endless giving (“Take anything you want from me/ Anything”) is romantic, though he never quite justifies this person’s existence. The way he sings those words, though, mirrors the yearning of his guitar, of each prolonged note and deep blues dip. It’s satisfaction merged with adoration. Here lays Hendrix at his most infatuated, and as he rests, so does his heartbeat, the song shifting into a pace that brings new energy to his songwriting.

“Little Wing” has been rightly covered by the masses. Everyone from Sting to Def Leppard, Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Vitamin String Quartet, Pearl Jam to Eric Clapton have taken a swing at the number. Arguably the last musician expected to cover Jimi Hendrix is an artist like Joanna Newsom. And yet, not only has she covered him, but she’s covered multiple songs — and both pay tribute in marvelous fashion.

Back in 2005, another impressive roundup of musicians played Meltdown, an annual festival held in London that mixes music, art, performance, and film. What separates it from other festivals is that an established musician direct the event, curating the performances and hand-picking the musicians. That year’s festival saw Patti Smith in the control seat, and Joanna Newsom was chosen as one of the acts alongside Antony and the Johnsons, Cat Power, Yoko Ono, Jeff Beck, John Cale, Kevin Shields, and more.

This may have been early on in Newsom’s career, but Smith knew what she wanted to hear. She booked her to perform as part of “Songs of Innocence / Songs of Experience”. The prior program was dedicated to childhood, the latter to Jimi Hendrix. “Rock’n’roll is our voice; the voice of youth and of revolutionary concerns. It is a grassroots art. And this is the Blakean experience. I wanted an evening about that spirit of rock’n’roll and about children, on whom we pin our hopes,” Smith told The Guardian. “To do this, I thought of women and mothers.”

That, and breaking down barriers between genres, as Hendrix loved to champion. Newsom was hence a shoe-in, her harp and childlike vocals shifting gears for folk music as it had previously been delivered in the aughts. “It’s a great way to end the festival,” said Smith, “because the festival is about a lot of the things Hendrix believed in.”

Newsom took a stab at “Angel” off Hendrix’s 1971 posthumous LP The Cry of Love. However, it’s her rendition of “Little Wing” that shows how creativity and reinvention allow the works of others to find new life. “Little Wing” never lost its soul — it couldn’t if it tried — so she doesn’t find it in that sense, but Newsom does draw out the song’s wanting, finding a heart within it that’s entirely calming, even if the figure isn’t totally real, and, therefore, neither are its comforts.

Right from its start, Newsom brings overwhelming intrigue and wonder to the image of an angel before even opening her mouth. How could she not? People associate the harp with the heavens and the angels who play them. Her cover begins with a glissando, the continuous slide upward and downward across the instrument’s strings, most often used to signal a dream sequence in films. She then strums her way through a gorgeous, soaring instrumental intro to the song. If there was a replica of Sunday mornings in heaven, this is how it would sound.

By the time Newsom’s vocals kick in, the story of “Little Wing” feels like a fable. She sings with deep tones and fleeting falsettos. Hendrix’s tale of comforts is no longer in the moment. It’s a lesson being passed down from one generation to the next. In some ways, she rushes through the words, skipping along with realism as the focus, balancing it out with the most imaginative instrument, extending her outro into a solo of her own.

The two renditions shine opposing lights on the song’s message while both delivering heartfelt musical solos. For Hendrix, “Little Wing” is a tale of communal calm and of loving serenity. For Newsom, “Little Wing” is a story of imagined comforts and the cautionary realism. And in that, Hendrix’s genius shines all the more: his music allows for conflicting liberties via interpretations and their ability to wax poetics full of heart no matter which direction they bend.

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