It begins with two notes. Only two notes. The first note sounds almost like a mistake, like the guitarist is bringing his hand up to play the first chord and accidentally hits the high E and B strings (it’s not a mistake, I’m pretty sure). The second note slides up on the guitar neck, very quickly, and then the third note is a full stop on the low E string, completing the phrase. We then hear two quick muted down strums of all six strings and then a lovely melody, accented by gentle taps on a bell that brings us into the song.
The introduction begins simply enough, but as we hear the beginning of the story of this song through its flowery melody, the introduction gets more complex. We get connected to the song. We anticipate the lyrics. At the thirty second mark the guitar gives way to a roll of the drums, a quick strum of the guitar, and then the fairly tale begins.
“Little Wing” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience is a remarkable treasure. At only 2:24 long and released in 1968, “Little Wing” is an incredibly short song to have resonated so strongly all these 53 years. Maybe that’s because, for as short as the song is, we can hear it as actually two distinct songs, two different ways to connect. We can hear “Little Wing” as an amazing instrumental, and we can hear it as shimmering poetry.
“Little Wing” actually began in 1966. Hendrix played on the song “(My Girl) She’s a Fox” by Lonnie Youngblood, and though the guitar intro is simplified, it sounds remarkably similar to the intro on “Little Wing.”
That Jimi Hendrix was a guitar virtuoso surprises no one. He played with his left hand. He played with his right hand. He played upside down. He caressed is guitar. He thrashed his guitar. He danced with his guitar. Famously, he even burned his guitar.
But far beyond studio chicanery, that Hendrix could do great things on his guitar, while he sang so beautifully, is still something to behold. Likely, the continual flourishes that can be heard while he sings on the studio track are made possible by tracking and overdubbing, but check out one of the rare live performances of the song below. It may not exactly copy the studio version of the song, but it gets very close.
At the end of the song, Hendrix explodes into a powerful solo as the bells and drums continue behind him. Almost as an afterthought, he sings “…fly on little wing” as his hands continue to fly up and down the fret board letting loose with consistent melody accented by explosive, stinging flourishes. It’s a legendary performance, and it ends almost as quickly as it began.
“Little Wing” is indeed an amazing instrumental, but it is also a beautifully sung poem. Hendrix’ vocals are fed through a Leslie cabinet, giving them a floating, airy quality. Hendrix was inspired to write “Little Wing” after attending the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He saw people dressed in flowery, colorful clothing. He saw them dance in front of the stage. He saw them get lost in the music.
“Well, she’s walking through the clouds,
with a circus mind that’s running wild.
Butterflies and zebras,
and fairy tales.
That’s all she ever thinks about, is
riding with the wind.”
What do you imagine when you hear these lyrics?
What do you see when you read them?
What images occur to you as you listen to Hendrix’ angelic singing?
Anything I might suggest, I fear, would only serve to diminish your listening experience. Turn the music up loud. Close your eyes. Savor every moment of the song, every lyric that inspires your imagination, because there is only one more verse.
“When I’m sad, she comes to me.
With a thousand smiles she gives to me free.
It’s alright, she says it’s alright,
take anything you want from me.
There is no bridge. There is no chorus. There is only the guitar solo at the end that fades out all too quickly, and there are only the images left in your mind. Clouds, and colors, and butterflies, and zebras.
“Little Wing” has been covered many times through the years. I particularly like the version Sting included on his Nothing Like the Sun album in 1987. Stretching out to over 5:00 in length, with a mysteriously long fade-in, lush orchestral strings are added while still keeping that sense of imagination and fantasy.
My favorite cover though is the instrumental version by Stevie Ray Vaughan, postumously released in 1991 after his untimely death in a helicopter accident in 1990. Vaughan keeps his version faithful to the original, doing an amazing job on the intro. There are no bells accenting in the background, and there are no vocals. It’s just the guitar, with bass and drums, and it’s remarkable. Lovely though the lyrics are, Vaughan’s version brings sharp focus to the story told in the music, and it is every bit as evocative as the original.
Sadly, Hendrix died of an accidental drug overdose at the young age of 27. Like so many other artists who died too young, we can’t help but to think what their talent, creativity and inspiration would have created, and what we might be enjoying today that will now never be made.
The examples of Hendrix playing “Little Wing” live are rare, and the version below from the Royal Albert Hall in London is appropriately blurry, almost to the point of complete obfuscation. We strain to see how Hendrix plays what we are hearing. We fill in the blanks with imagination and curiosity.
Our circus minds can’t help but to run wild.
Written by Jimi Hendrix
Preformed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Recorded October 1967
Released January 15, 1968