Rumble documentary tells story of Native American artists’ contributions
In the annals of American popular music, the role of Native Americans is one that’s either been omitted or largely overlooked. That is, until the release of the documentary Rumble: The Indians That Rocked the World. Film execs Tim Johnson, Stevie Salas, Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana use the late rockabilly icon Link Wray, who was of Shawnee descent, as the springboard to make their case over the course of roughly 103 minutes. In the film, a wide swath of artists, ranging from Tony Bennett, George Clinton, Quincy Jones, Martin Scorsese, Steven Tyler and Taj Mahal to Robbie Robertson, Buddy Guy, Slash, Little Steven Van Zandt, Marky Ramone and Iggy Pop, testify not only to the contributions of Native Americans like Wray, but also fellow Natives jazz vocalist Mildred Bailey, Jimi Hendrix and storied session guitarist Jesse Ed Davis.
The inspiration for the film evolved from a Smithsonian Museum exhibit that Salas and Johnson helped curate a decade-plus ago that was based on Salas being interviewed by musician/historian Brian Wright-Mcleod, the author of The Encyclopedia of Native Music: More Than a Century of Recordings from Wax Cylinder to the Internet.
“I met Tim Johnson one day at the Smithsonian and I started telling him this story about learning all these contributions that Natives had made from Brian Wright-Mcleod,” Salas recalled. “[Tim] freaked out and offered me a job at the Smithsonian, and I started to work with him. We created an exhibit called ‘Up Where We Belong: Natives in Popular Culture,’ which was about the subject of ‘Rumble’ with Link Wray and all the same characters in it. We opened at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and it became the most popular exhibit they ever had. And then we opened a Smithsonian exhibit in New York City, and it ran for a year and made it four times bigger. When the exhibit wrapped, I wanted to make a film.”
Having seen Reel Injun, a 2009 documentary about the history of Native American stereotypes in Hollywood that was co-produced and co-directed by Bainbridge, Salas and Johnson decided to go with Bainbridge and Maiorana, who criss-crossed the country corralling interviews for three years starting in 2013. Wray’s ominous 1958 hit “Rumble,” with its influential use of distortion, delay, feedback and an enormous power chord, proved to be fertile ground to get the ball rolling on this project. It is the only instrumental track to ever get banned. Maiorana pointed to the ripple effect it had on an entire generation of guitarists.
“When I was meeting people who knew about Link they said it was the first time someone took the guitar and started to say something with it. There are no lyrics, but he’s saying something else that people couldn’t figure out. I think it’s the beginning of not only how the guitar changes, but how rock and roll changes. What’s amazing about that song is how it influences everybody,” Maiorana said. “Everybody can take that song and those riffs and see how the distortion and that noise plants the seeds for punk. The MC5, the pioneers of punk, were influenced by that, followed by the Stooges and The Clash. When Wayne Kramer talks about Link Wray, he goes on and on about him. Then you have The Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.”
Viewers will come away learning about the contributions of Bailey, who not only helped give Bing Crosby his first break, but had quite an impact on an impressionable Bennett, whose recollections of the Native American jazz singer had him glowing in the documentary.
Another overlooked artist given his due is Davis, who played on a voluminous amount of recording sessions for artists ranging from Cher, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart to George Harrison, Jackson Browne, Bryan Ferry and Clapton despite dying at the age of 43 due to a drug overdose. There is also a memorable moment in the film when Native American activist Pura Fé is sitting in a room while a record by Delta Blues legend Charley Patton plays, and she seamlessly starts doing a Native chant to the song, stopping long enough to declare, “When I hear this, it’s Indian music to me.” For Salas, Rumble not only makes the case for Native Americans’ contributions to music, but to the larger picture as well.
“When you look at the beginning of the Delta Blues and the music in New Orleans, what we’re really talking about is the development of North America—Canada and the United States. It wasn’t all of this or that group—it was a melting pot,” Salas said. “A lot of people took credit for things. Could we have had rock and roll if it wasn’t for the blend of the Native people, African-Americans, Scots and Irish? It really tells the story of the development of North America and music was a by-product of that.”
There will be a screening of Rumble: The Indians That Rocked the World on Jan. 24 at the International House, 500 Riverside Drive, NYC. It will include a Q-and-A with the film’s co-director and co-writer Alfonso Maiorana.
For more information, visit www.ihouse-nyc.org or call 212-316-8400. It will also be airing on PBS. Check local listings.