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The Native American Influence on Music is Examined in 'Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World '
January 21, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

When writers start running down the list of all the musical styles that influenced rock ‘n’ roll, even the most learned often stop before they get to the music of Native Americans.

They shouldn’t, argues a PBS Independent Lens documentary called Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World, which premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Directed by Catherine Bainbridge, Rumble doesn’t limit its examination of Native American musical influence only to rock ‘n’ roll. That’s just the biggest machine that much of the popular music of the 20th century got loaded into.

Rumble gets your attention up front by reminding viewers about the Native American heritage and musical influence of artists as well known and admired as Jimi Hendrix, or Robbie Robertson of The Band.

The documentary starts, however, with the song from which it takes its title: “Rumble,” an iconic instrumental recorded in 1958 by Link Wray (top and left), a lifelong musician of Shawnee descent.

“Rumble” is widely credited with popularizing the power chord – a loud, extended, resonant sound that later became integral for bands like The Who.

The documentary dwells on Wray at length, a good decision both for his musical and personal stories.

He grew up in North Carolina and his family, like many other Native Americans, tried to keep its heritage quiet. Descendants of Wray, who died in 2005 at the age of 76, recall how the Ku Klux Klan would come through the neighborhood by night and terrorize anyone who wasn’t white.

That sort of specter might explain why the Wray family apparently told the U.S. census takers in both 1930 and 1940 that the Wrays were white folks.  

But it’s not only Southern Native Americans from many years back who talk about hiding their heritage. Robertson says one of the mantras among his friends while he was growing up was, “Be proud to be an Indian, but be careful who you tell.”

As with black artists, it’s clear that discrimination and plain old suspicion were part of what Native American musicians dealt with, and if it’s rarely overt in their work, it wasn’t forgotten.

Rumble starts with Charley Patton – who many blues aficionados, with all due respect to Robert Johnson, consider the greatest of the Mississippi Delta blues singers.

Bainbridge and her numerous experts illustrate how Patton’s broad repertoire, sung in a husky growl that verged on a mumble, often was patterned directly on Native American songs and chants.

Even Patton’s use of the guitar as a percussion instrument echoes Native American musical tradition.

Off the rock ‘n’ roll track, jazz singer Mildred Bailey incorporated Native American music into her style, which had a direct influence on Tony Bennett.

Folk music has always had a significant Native American component as well, and while there isn’t room to talk much about important artists like Peter LaFarge and Patrick Sky, Rumble does devote time to Jesse Ed Davis and Buffy Sainte-Marie (above).

Rumble doesn’t over-argue that Native American music was the central taproot for popular music styles that followed. It argues more modestly, but accurately and well, that it’s been a notable element far more common in the mix than is routinely acknowledged.

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Gary Chamberlain
I've seen the film about 3 times. Amazing musicians.
I would like to get the DVD.
They should be VERY proud
May 29, 2019   |  Reply
I see it a totally different way, my opinion, Blues, Jazz, early Rock and Roll influenced Native Americans to begin playing those styles which in turn, a few, had an influence on modern music. But, I don't see these few Native Americans as being very influential in the development of Blues, Rock, Jazz or any other popular genres. They simply succeeded by grasping on to them. Which is what I, a white male, am also attempting to do albeit with much lower success.
Jan 22, 2019   |  Reply
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