One of the songs that best represents the guitar virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix is “Little Wing” from the 1967 Jimi Hendrix Experience album, Axis: Bold As Love. The song’s gentle, psychedelic guitar intro and the gradually building melody that follows have influenced countless guitarists, including fellow guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughn, who famously released his instrumental take on “Little Wing” in 1991.
The lyrics to “Little Wing” are as mysterious and free-flowing as the song’s guitar melody, with Hendrix singing about this special cosmic woman that he encounters. This woman embodies the wild spirit of mother nature and enters his life as a bright and shining beam, bringing along with her the positivity of her spirit.
Jimi conjures up the clouds in the intro with a unique flanging to his guitar tone, which is done with the use of a Leslie cabinet. Hendrix was one of the first to use an effect like this, with Buddy Guy coming before him on Junior Wells’ 1965 recording of “Hoodoo Man Blues”, and it has since been used by many guitarists including, of course, Stevie Ray Vaughn as well as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on the song “Yellow Ledbetter.”
As Hendrix finishes that gorgeous introduction, his lyrics in the first verse introduce us to this woman whom he has met up there in the clouds:
Well, she’s walking through the cloudsFirst verse to “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix.
With a circus mind that’s running wild
Butterflies and Zebras
And Moonbeams and fairy tales
That’s all she ever thinks about
Riding with the wind
Jimi spends some time with this woman and she makes a big impact on his life, bringing him peace and joy, and “a thousand smiles”, which she offers up for free. This comforting presence does not stay in his life for long, as Jimi’s free spirit will not allow him to accept her love. There is no ill-will between the pair in the end, as she understands that he must he must “Fly on, little wing.”
The second verse depicts the brief, but meaningful experience that the pair have together, before Hendrix must fly away and be free:
When I’m sad, she comes to meSecond verse to “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix.
With a thousand smiles she gives to me free
It’s alright, she says it’s alright
Take anything you want from me
Fly on little wing
It’s said that Jimi Hendrix had the melody for “Little Wing” as early as 1966, but it wasn’t until October 1967 when he finally finished writing the song, following his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that June.
Jimi’s performance at Monterey Pop is regarded as one of the most explosive of his career. It was his first big gig on American soil, on a bill with acts like The Who, Grateful Dead, and Buffalo Springfield, and his legendary guitar-burning at the festival has become the stuff of legends.
The people in the crowd weren’t the only ones who felt the impact of the performance, either. Hendrix himself has said that the things he saw at Monterey inspired him to write “Little Wing”.
He spoke of this in an interview with a Swedish journalist in 1968, and an excerpt was published in Shapiro & Glebbeek’s 1995 biography Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy:
It’s based on a very, very simple Indian style… I got the idea like when we were at Monterey and I was just lookin’ at everything around. So I figured that I take everything I’d see and put it maybe in the form of a girl, or somethin’ like that, you know, and call it “Little Wing” and then it will just fly away. Everybody’s really flyin’ and they’re really in a nice mood, like the police, and everything was really, really great out there. And so I just took all these things and put them in one very, very, small matchbox, you know, into a girl, and then do it. It’s very simple, but I like it though…Jimi Hendrix on the inspiration behind “Little Wing”, 1968.
Hendrix spoke further of this in an interview published in Douglas Kent Hall’s 1970 book The Superstars In Their Own Words, which was also published with the Hendrix-inspired title Rock: A World Bold as Love earlier that year:
“Little Wing” is like one of these beautiful girls that come around sometimes. You ride into town for the drinks and parties and so forth. You play your gig; it’s the same thing as the olden days. And these beautiful girls come around and really entertain you. You do actually fall in love with them because that’s the only love you can have. It’s not always the physical thing of ‘Oh, there’s one over there…’ It’s not one of those scenes. They actually tell you something. They release different things inside themselves, and then you feel to yourself, ‘Damn, there’s really a responsibility to some of these girls, you know, because they’re the ones that are gonna get screwed.
“Little Wing” was a very sweet girl that came around that gave me her whole life and more if I wanted it. And me with my crazy *** couldn’t get it together, so I’m off here and there and off over there.Jimi Hendrix on the meaning of “Little Wing”, 1970.
Many reading this may remember a “Little Wing” who has entered their own lives at some point, and perhaps things didn’t work out due to one or the other’s free-spirited tendencies. Hendrix’s music festival-inspired lyrics encourage us to enjoy these encounters, and find peace with the knowledge that not all good things are meant to last.
Listen to versions of “Little Wing” by both Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn below.