Every once in a while you see a film that is a revelation. “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” is that film.
Written and co-directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, the film portrays the effect of indigenous music on our American musical traditions of blues, country, rock’n roll, hip hop and jazz. I had no idea that American popular music owed so much to Native American music–the chants, the drumming, the strumming. The symbiosis of indigenous musical traditions with African-American music is so engrained without many of us even realizing it.
The directors depict a shameful time in our history where Indians (the term is used widely throughout the film) were fearful to expose their heritage. Robbie Robertson (from the Band and half-Mohawk Indian) was warned by his mother, “Be proud of being an Indian, but be careful who you tell.” Many indigenous musicians chose to identify themselves as African or Mexican as there was often more prejudice against Native Americans. Our history with indigenous culture has been blood-stained going back to the slaughtering of the “Ghost Dancers” during the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.
The influence of Native American musicians is vast. Many cite Link Wray’s (Shawnee) recording of “Rumble” (1958) as a seminal influence in rock music (and also the derivation of the film title). Some musicians feel that you can almost hear Indian chanting in his chords. His first use of the innovative “power chord riffs” was a huge influence on the best rock guitarists including Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee/African-American/Scottish), Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page and Neil Young. Steven van Zandt called “Rumble” the “theme song of juvenile delinquency”! Rolling Stone said that “Rumble sounded like an invitation to a knife fight.” It’s the only instrumental tune that was banned from the radio. The American government was fearful of Indian music inciting violence and the directors explored the “deliberate erasure” of indigenous history.
Redbone was a Native American rock group that proudly displayed their heritage wearing their indigenous outfits when performing. They were the group that had the huge hit “Come and Get Your Love,” which has had a second life recently in the hugely popular movie “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Who didn’t love listening to Chris Pratt humorously singing that catchy song?
It surely wasn’t only rock that was influenced by Native American music. Blues guitarist Charlie Patton (Choctaw and African-American) had a huge influence on Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and eventually the Rolling Stones (apparently we often need British groups to help us appreciate our rich American musical heritage). Mildred Bailey (Coeur d’Alene) was a gorgeous jazz vocalist who has been cited as an inspiration for Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra’s vocal stylings. And let’s not forget the brilliant Neville Brothers of New Orleans, who are part Choctaw Indian. Pura Fe, the indigenous music historian, said that, when people hear American Southern music, they say, “That’s Indian music? I thought that was African music.”
Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa and Comanche) is considered a musical genius. He created the classic guitar solo in Jackson Brown’s first big hit, “Doctor My Eyes.” Davis also worked with Faces (Rod Stewart’s group) and Mick Jagger. If you watched the benefit movie “Bangladesh,” Davis was the tall, Native American guitarist next to George Harrison. Stevie Salas (Native American himself), session musician and executive producer of this film, was amazed that he never knew that Davis was Indian. He didn’t make the connection until he did research for “Rumble” and discovered the deep effect Native Americans made on all American musical traditions. Catherine Bainbridge, co-director of this film, calls this “buried history.” “Once people hear about this they think, ‘Wow, how did I not realize this before?’” Exactly!
Recently the moral influence of Native Americans trying to protect their land was shown during the protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline site in Standing Rock, North Dakota. And Buffy St. Marie (Cree Indian) was there singing “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Watching this film made me realize what really does make America great: the varied origins of the different artists producing a “gumbo” that is far tastier than any one ingredient alone.
“Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World” deserves its Sundance Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling. Don’t miss it!