An electric sonic assault! The ultra-cool hipster in a leather jacket sidles on stage and blows the roof off with crunching power cords. AC/DC? Metallica? NO! This was in 1958!
“There was a song that came on the radio – a guitar instrumental – and it changed everything. It was raw and dirty, and had that rebellious spirit to it. And then I found out that he was an Indian!”
— Robbie Robertson (Mohawk/Cayuga)
(Note: You are urged to watch the linked musical pieces as you read the article).
The 2017 documentary “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” roars at the start, highlighting Link Wray — a North Carolina Shawnee — whose power chords presaged hard rock and heavy metal. This was a time of hair slicked back, leather jacketed gangs in some American cities. Wray was the only musician who had a song banned that had no lyrics! The music itself was so powerful, nasty, tinged with danger, that authorities in Boston and New York banned it as “inciting violence”!
The Austin Film Society recently graced viewers with this spiritual musical tour de force. “Rumble” is a deeply felt, many times joyous, frequently profound exploration of how Native Americans have influenced American music. Numerous musicians and guests explain how the rhythms of their nature-based spirituality, folkways, and music influenced many American music styles.
Mississippian Charlie Patton was of mixed black, white and Cherokee or Choctaw ancestry. In the early 20th century Patton developed his style — an early form of the blues. He “gained popularity for his showmanship, sometimes playing with the guitar down on his knees, behind his head, or behind his back.” Patton mentored young musicians, including Chester Burnett, who in Chicago became Howlin’ Wolf. Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Killing Floor” and “Spoonful” became American blues and blues rock standards. Mentee Robert Johnson developed the Mississippi Delta style of blues; and was influential on the broader American blues scene.
A touching and pure segment highlights Native American women’s a cappella group Ulali. Founded in 1987, it includes Pura Fé (Tuscarora/Taino), Soni (Mayan, Apache, Yaqui), and Jennifer Kreisberg (Tuscarora). Ulali’s beautiful songs comprise indigenous music including “Southeast U.S. choral singing (pre-blues and gospel) and pre-Columbian music. Ulali’s live performances address Native struggles and accomplishments.” (Wiki) Ulali sang on Robbie Robertson’s magnificent album “Music for the Native Americans” (1994).
Several rock guitarists are covered:
• Jimi Hendrix was 1/16th Cherokee. His sister explains their pride in their Indian heritage. Hendrix included Indian style garb in his wardrobe; and played in styles reminiscent of Charlie Patton. Those who saw him always will remember the power of his live performances.
• Canadian Robbie Robertson’s Mohawk/Cayuga mother, Dolly, grew up on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, and “came from a culture of storytelling, living off the land, music and art that imbued the legacy she passed on. These qualities had clear influences on Robbie’s song-writing.” (Brantford Expositor) Famous as The Band’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter, it is especially in his solo work that Robertson, 74, highlights his indigenous soul.
• Highly talented Oklahoman Jesse Ed Davis (Comanche/Kiowa) became a prized Los Angeles session and touring musician. Aerosmith explicitly modeled their sound on Davis’ playing. However, Davis was in and out of rehabs after finding heroin on a European tour. While he continued playing when able, the drug did him in at age 43. (Davis plays on the Trudell clip below.)
• Another guitar hot shot, Stevie Salas (Apache) — co-Executive Producer of “Rumble”– was so talented that he played on a Rod Stewart tour when very young. He began living the sex, drugs, and money rock and roll lifestyle. He was lucky. A fellow Indian musician, seeing that Salas “was going crazy,” took him to sacred Apache lands in New Mexico to reconnect with his native spirituality. It worked, and Salas has created a fine multi-media career. Salas received the 2009 Native American Lifetime Achievement Award.
• Canadian singer Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) became popular in the Folk Music Revival of the 1960s. But when she began exposing the plight of Indians in America, and her song “Universal Soldier” opposed the Vietnam War, her opportunities disappeared. Sainte-Marie “found out years later that President Lyndon Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationery praising radio stations for suppressing my music.”
Robbie Robertson confirms the hurdles Indian musicians faced: On the Reserve he was told to “be proud of being an Indian; but be careful who you tell.” Academy Award, Golden Globe, and JUNO Awards winner Sainte-Marie, 76, continues performing today.
Throughout “Rumble” the late Native American author, poet, actor, musician, and political activist John Trudell (Santee Dakota) provides analysis and perspective. Director Catherine Bainbridge calls Trudell “the film’s spiritual center.” In the 1970s Trudell was Chairman of The American Indian Movement (AIM). Trudell’s wife and father-in-law also were active politically. In 1979 a fire killed his wife, three children, and mother-in-law. Officially ruled accidental, suspicions remain about possible political intents. After grieving, Trudell embarked on a multi-channel career of great creativity. “Rumble” is dedicated to Trudell, who succumbed to cancer while the movie was being edited.
While “Rumble” addresses socio-political realities, it is far, far from a victim film. Stevie Salas says it’s about “amazing people who did these amazing things.” Indeed, any movie that starts and ends with Link Wray is no downer!
“Rumble” is completing its initial theatrical release. Watch for further distribution. For if you have indigenous ancestry, or value and love the American music and cultural landscape, you’ll want to see “Rumble”!
Author’s note: I am a European American with no Native American ancestry. A lifelong student of American Civilization, I have read widely about indigenous peoples, their lives, cultures, spirituality, and history. I am blessed to have had loving relationships with Walaya Lornae Feather (Lakota), and my life partner Marcia Desy (Metis). I am grateful for meaningful discussions with Native Americans along my road — who shared with me I think because I approached them with equality, respect, and sincere interest. That being said, I wrote this article humbly and I hope honorably, in full knowledge that I am a Wasichu “looking in.” We can be grateful that the American Indians in “Rumble” chose to share their music, culture and history with all of us.
© 2017 by Rick Schwertfeger, used by permission.