The Poetry of Jimi Hendrix (VI) – “House Burning Down” May 26, 2011Posted by rwf1954 in House Burning Down, Jimi Hendrix, music commentary, poetry, rock music.
Tags: House Burning Down, Jimi Hendrix, music, poetry, rock music, song lyrics as poetry
(This is the sixth of a series of posts about the lyrics of rock super-guitarist Jimi Hendrix. This is certainly what I meant when I introduced this blog and said “So my readers should expect all kinds of digressions, everything from some musical musings to an off-the-wall comment about the world.” I am a musician well as a writer, writing and performing. I cover nine Hendrix songs (here is a current playlist of everything I perform with my drum-bass machine set-up). This series of posts is not about songs like “Foxey Lady” and “Little Miss Lover.” A handful of Hendrix songs glisten with a lyrical inventiveness, uniquely poetic and musical, words and music existing in a smooth symbiotic combination. The lyrics drip and glide through the songs the way Jimi Hendrix’s guitar notes drip and glide through auditory space. These will be the songs I will discuss in these posts. Of course, these posts represent my interpretations of these lyrics. This is not an exact science. Your comments, agreeing and disagreeing are invited.)
For me, “House Burning Down” has some connection to “Up from the Skies” (recently discussed at this blog). In “Up from the Skies,” the narrator of the song returns from somewhere, maybe from space, to “the smell of a world that has burned.” This song seems to me like a prequel to “Up from the Skies”—consciously or unconsciously.
Again, we have the narrator of the song arriving at the scene and asking what is going on. And no one seems to know! There is smoke, there is hell-fire red, flames creating a ghostly whine—and no one knows what is going on! In addition to that, this ignorance is casual. The narrator does eventually tell us “the truth is straight ahead so don’t burn yourself instead—try to learn instead of burn…” This comes after someone emerge “from the crowd nineteen miles high” and adds to the mess. I have to say, I’m not sure why the narrator says “we paint red through the sky.” It may be he is admitting getting momentarily caught up in the “burning” before offering his message of “learning.”
At the end, “a giant boat from space” comes in and takes “all the dead away.” Is this the arrival of the narrator from “Up from the Skies,” coming to “the smell of a world that has burned?”
It appears to me the song expresses the preference for refraining from “burning” anger which leads to destruction. He calls for mutual understanding—“learning instead of burning.” He wrote his songs at the time of the specter of nuclear war hovering over the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and phrases in the song allude to nuclear bomb type destruction. But “learning instead of burning” is a great phrase for our time, or any time, as well.
Musically, Hendrix again perfectly joins sounds to words. The “Look at the sky turn a hell fire red” chorus starts the song as nearly shouted over pounding attention-getting rhythms and the I chord, with an added flat 7 flat 11 (a common blues chord allowing both the major and minor third of the key to be sounded at once, creating a bluesy dissonance). It’s the less reflective, more emotional part of the song, a call for immediate consideration. To get to the more reflective portion of the song, there is a sudden move down in major seconds and an abrupt shift of key to a major second lower than the original key. Now the background chords and rhythms are more subtle, with more room for tasty licks as the narrator processes the events around him and comments. This is a simple minor key progression—i-i-i-i/iv-iv-iv-iv/i-i-iv-v/i-iv-i—. He then jolts us with a sudden move back to the chorus. There is no transition. He jolts us right back to the hell fire red because it is a jolting image!