The Culture Movies

Documentary ‘Rumble’ explores Native Americans’ influence on music

The alchemy of American music as it relates to Native Americans is such a voluminous subject that, inevitably, the fascinating “Rumble” can’t do it justice.

Link Wray appears in the documentary 'Rumble.'
Bruce Steinberg/Courtesy of LINKWRAY.com/Kino Lorber
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( Unrated )
  • Peter Rainer
    Film critic

In the fascinating documentary “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” the great jazz critic Gary Giddins says, “The one group that hasn’t really been investigated in terms of their contribution [to music history] is the Native Americans.” 

This new film, co-directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, the former of whom previously co-directed the documentary “Reel Injun,” about Native American stereotypes in Hollywood movies, aims to rectify that omission. (Those who made the movie were inspired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibit “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians In Popular Culture,” which was co-created by Stevie Salas, a veteran Apache guitarist, and Tim Johnson.) 

Why was such an integral swath of musical culture neglected for so long, in a field where it seems as if every last bit of academic arcana has already been tilled? 

One of the problems, as the film points out, is that, up until at least the 1960s, it was commercially even less advantageous to be an Indian (the term is often used throughout the movie) than an African-American. Native American singers, musicians, and songwriters did not announce their heritage (which was often of mixed blood). They “passed” as white, or in some cases, as solely African-American or Hispanic.

Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist for the legendary group The Band, who grew up in Canada’s Six Nations Reserve, remembers a saying from the 1950s, when he was starting out: “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.”

“Rumble” profiles, with occasional side trips, 10 subjects, starting with the great delta blues guitarist Charley Patton (Choctaw, African-American), who was a major influence on such greats as Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. Mildred Bailey (Coeur d’Alene), revered by Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra for her phrasing, which was influenced by her Indian roots, was a leading jazz singer during the ’30s. Shawnee guitarist Link Wray’s 1958 rock instrumental “Rumble,” with its distorted amplification, influenced an entire generation of rock guitarists, the foremost being the greatest of them all, Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee and African-
American). “Rumble” was actually banned for a time because radio station owners feared it would incite juvenile delinquency.

In discussing “Rumble,” Robertson (Mohawk) says, “It made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock was gonna go. And then I found out Link Wray was an Indian!” After so many years in which Native American culture was gutted or nullified, Robertson says directly into the camera, “You wouldn’t let me talk about it before. Well, now I’m going to talk real loud.”

Others profiled include Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa and Comanche), whose guitar solo on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor, My Eyes” is among the most memorable in folk-rock; Pat Vegas (Yaqui/Shoshone), who explicitly played up his roots with his group Redbone, especially in their hit song “Come and Get Your Love”; Randy Castillo (Isleta Pueblo/Apache), the heavy metal artist whose drumming had a strong “tribal” element; and Jaime Luis Gomez (Shoshone), also known as Taboo, of the Black Eyed Peas, who grew up knowing only of his Mexican heritage until, on a trip with his grandmother to Arizona, he discovered his Native American identity.

The alchemy of American music as it relates to Native Americans is such a voluminous subject that, inevitably, the documentary “Rumble” can’t do it justice. Bainbridge and Maiorana sketch the highlights, but I wish they had included more commentary from interviewees like Giddins, Quincy Jones, Guy Davis, Taj Mahal, and many others. (This is another way of saying I wish the film were at least four times as long.)

Inevitably, the subject dovetails politics and the fraught history of American race relations. Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree), for example, who was a leading mainstream exponent of Native American music as a rallying cry for social protest in the ’60s (and subsequently), talks about being blacklisted by American radio stations. 

The irony is that, for so long, Native American artists felt compelled to hide their roots in order to have any chance at a commercial career; in the era of identity politics that began in the ’60s, the situation reversed itself. Hendrix could tell Vegas, who had been floundering with different non-indigenous costumes, to “do the Indian thing.” It worked. The movie doesn’t look too closely at, among other conundrums, how asserting one’s racial identity can itself lead to a kind of commercial stereotyping and inauthenticity. But what is strikingly brought home in “Rumble” is how the vast stew of influences in American music, rather than diluting everything, makes the music all the more powerful. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)