‘Rumble’ Aims to Upset the Rock ‘n’ Roll Canon

A documentary based on a Smithsonian exhibition is wowing festival audiences

Robbie Robertson Photo courtesy Rezolution Pictures/Kino Lorber
Link Wray Bruce Steinberg, courtesy linkwray.com/ Kino Lorber
Burffy Sainte-Marie Photo courtesy Rezolution Pictures/Kino Lorber
Steven Van Zandt Photo courtesy Rezolution Pictures/Kino Lorber
Martin Scorsese Photo courtesy Rezolution Pictures/Kino Lorber

The year was 1958 and some radio stations were refusing to play a song that was making its way up the pop charts. But it wasn’t Elvis Presley who was causing the furor—it was the similarly coiffed Link Wray.

Born in rural east-central North Carolina, Wray was peddling his own form of musical subversion. Unknown to his small but growing fan base was the fact that Wray hailed from the Shawnee tribe. Wray wasn’t about to proclaim his Native American heritage out loud in an era when bigotry and racism was the norm. But his song, an instrumental called "Rumble" and his musical styling, a garage rock sound driven by power chords and distortion—achieved in part by poking holes in his guitar amplifier—put the nation on notice. It expressed an unsettled, edgy feeling that DJs worried might just incite a riot.

In Boston and New York, radio stations banned "Rumble." For Native Americans, it evoked memories of the government’s prohibition against certain tribal songs and dances at the turn of the 20th century.

But the ban didn’t stop "Rumble" from hitting number 16 on the pop charts and becoming a touchstone for musicians as varied as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Guns and Roses, the Foo Fighters and the Dave Clark Five.

"Rumble" is the linchpin for a new documentary that firmly establishes Native Americans as key players in the rise of the blues, rock 'n' roll and pop music in the United States. The movie, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, is based on a 2010 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian that was curated by Stevie Salas and Tim Johnson.

Salas, an Apache who temporarily joined the Smithsonian to work on the exhibition, is a long-time rock and funk guitarist who has played with Rod Stewart and George Clinton. He also produced the film. Salas has been shepherding Rumble to film festivals around the world, where it has been getting a lot of attention. At Sundance, it picked up a special storytelling award, and it won Audience Favorite at Hot Docs in Toronto. The film has been in national theatrical release since late July and will continue its run through Labor Day or perhaps longer.

RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World - Trailer

Rumble wasn’t conceived as a victim movie, says Salas. "I wanted to make a film about heroes," he says.

Guitar gods are practically cliché in the rock world, but the concept works in the movie, especially since so many of the musicians interviewed were completely unaware of their heroes’—and the film’s subjects’—Native American roots.

"The sound of [Wray's] guitar embodied all my aspirations," says guitarist Wayne Kramer. "It was the sound of freedom," says Kramer, whose band MC5 is considered a pioneer of punk in America.

Robbie Robertson, a founding member of The Band, and a Mohawk, says the song "Rumble" changed everything. "It made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock 'n' roll was gonna go," he says. "And then I found out that he’s an Indian."

The movie closely follows the 2010 Smithsonian exhibit, but also expands on it, making the connections between Native American traditions and the roots of popular music more obvious.

Rumble takes a trip through the birth of gospel and jazz, folk, and rock 'n' roll. It makes a brief stop in New Orleans, where African Americans with Native American heritage—including the city’s world-famous Neville family—have a long tradition of forming "Indian" groups that march in handmade beaded and feathered finery on Mardi Gras Day. Their drumming and chanting is not that far removed from Africa—or their Native American tribal roots.

Link Wray - Rumble - 11/19/1974 - Winterland (Official)

The film's narrative moves up the Mississippi, landing in the delta, where in the 1920s Charley Patton (African American/Choctaw) set the juke joints afire with his pioneering blues style, inspiring Muddy Waters and Dylan, among others. "When I hear this, it’s Indian music to me," says Pura Fe (Tuscarora/Taino), a singer and musician with Ulali, who pounds out the beat of Patton’s "Down the Dirt Road Blues" in the film.

Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) and Peter La Farge (Narragansett) burst onto the scene in the early 1960s just as Dylan was making Greenwich Village the center of the folk music universe. La Farge’s "Ballad of Ira Hayes," about the Akimel O’odham Marine who helped raise the American flag on Iwo Jima, so moved Johnny Cash that he recorded "Bitter Tears," a Native American tribute album, in 1964. Many DJs refused to play the record, which prompted an angry full-page ad in Billboard from the Man in Black.

The film also dips a toe into what some might consider controversial waters—including Jimi Hendrix. Salas says Hendrix, who was in the Smithsonian exhibition, also needed to be in the film. The desire was driven in part by Salas’ conversation with Hendrix’ sister Janie, who shared stories about the important role their paternal grandmother—who was part Cherokee—played in the rock guitarist’s musical and personal life.

When it came to choosing who to feature in the film, "if they didn’t live it," they weren’t included, says Salas. Hendrix was not a special exception, he says. But Salas acknowledges that not everyone agreed. PBS—which bought future broadcast rights—did not consider Hendrix a legitimate Native American hero.

No one would quibble with the inclusion of Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa), a session guitarist whom Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison all desired to—and eventually did—record with. A collaboration with Jackson Browne ended up creating one of the most memorable solos in pop music. Davis’ life, however, did not have a fairy-tale ending. He fell in and out of addiction, but before his death in 1988, he reconnected to his Native heritage. Davis joined with poet John Trudell (Santee Sioux) on the 1986 record aka Graffiti Man. The album featured Trudell’s musings on inequality, war and loss, layered over Davis’ sinuous guitar licks.

Trudell—a longtime activist—is the film’s resident curmudgeon and provocateur. His grounded-in-reality grit helps keep the film from becoming the sad-sack story that Salas wanted to avoid.

Just as Link Wray’s "Rumble" altered the trajectory of rock 'n' roll, Salas hopes the movie will change perceptions about Indians’ contribution to American music. Previously invisible, it now looms large on the screen.

"We rewrote Americans’ history," Salas says. "It’s never going back in the bottle. It’s there now, and it’s for real."

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