Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock

by Sherman Alexie
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860

‘‘Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star- Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock’’ begins with the narrator, Victor, remembering his father. Victor’s father quickly becomes the focal point of the story, as Victor explains how his father went to prison after beating up a National Guard private at a peace demonstration. The event was heavily documented, since Victor’s father was a Native American. Victor recalls how, even though somebody new was killed every day in prison, his father was able to escape any serious confrontations. After he was released, Victor’s father hitchhiked to Woodstock, where he saw Jimi Hendrix play ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’’

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Victor notes that, twenty years later, his father had played his Jimi Hendrix tape with the live song on it over and over again. He also notes the ritual that he and his father had followed when playing the tape. When Victor would hear his father come in late at night from drinking, Victor would start the tape. His father would listen for a little while, then pass out at the kitchen table, while Victor would fall asleep under the table by his father’s feet. Victor notes that his father felt guilty about this ritual and so in the mornings would try to make it up to Victor by telling him stories. Sometimes these stories cen tered on Victor’s mother, whom his father remembers as very beautiful. In fact, Victor notes that as the years went by and his parents’ relationship deteriorated, Victor’s father remembered his wife as increasingly more beautiful.

Victor notes how his parents had a violent relationship, which was often based on nights of heavy drinking and making love. Victor talks more about his relationship with his father, citing one memory in particular, a drive home from a basketball game in blizzard-like conditions. Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner’’ comes on the radio, inspiring Victor to talk to his father— something they did not often do. After the song is over, Victor tells his father that he is sad that his generation has not had a real war to fight. His father tells him that he is lucky and that there is only war and peace in life, with nothing in between.

On another occasion, Victor’s father tells him about the first time that he danced with Victor’s mother, a conversation that leads his father into talking about how kids in Victor’s generation know nothing about romance or music. Victor remembers how he used to stay awake at night listening to his parents making love, a concept that is alien to his white friends. Victor thinks that this positive experience makes up for the negative experience of watching his parents fight all the time. Victor notes that sometimes he would listen to his parents making love while dreaming about his father at Woodstock and says that he has seen footage of the music festival. However, Victor also admits that he still does not know what it was like for his father.

Victor recalls how his father drove them to Seattle a few years back to visit Jimi Hendrix’s grave. While his father idolizes Hendrix, his mother is derogatory towards Hendrix’s drug-related death. This disagreement turns into a fight, and Victor notes that, in contemporary Native-American marriages, fights get more destructive as the relationship falls apart. With the increasing number of fights, Victor’s father buys a motorcycle as a means of escape from his life. While the bike helps his father cut down on his drinking, it also closes him off even more from his family. One night, Victor’s father wrecks the bike and almost dies in the accident. Victor’s mother supports her husband while he gets well, but after that she returns to her old life as a traditional Native-American dancer.

Victor talks about his father’s ability to alter his memories and says that this is something he has learned from his father. Victor remembers how his father moved away and how his mother raised him after that. Victor talks to his mother, asking her why his father left, and she says that Victor’s father would rather be alone than hang around other people. After he leaves, Victor catches his mother looking through old photographs and realizes that she misses his father but that she does not want him back. Victor starts listening to blues music and thinks that he can identify with how his father felt at Woodstock.

One night, Victor imagines his father pulling up on his motorcycle and asking Victor if he wants to go for a ride. Victor realizes that it is not real but goes along with the illusion, anyway. He goes outside to wait for his father, and when his mother comes outside to fetch him from the cold night, he says that he knows his father is coming back. Victor’s mother wraps him in a blanket and goes back to sleep. Victor stays up all night waiting and imagining, then finally goes back inside to have breakfast with his mother.

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