“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” explores the history of Native Americans in popular music, some celebrated for their work, others less so. Jesse Ed Davis, who played alongside the Rolling Stones, is here, as is Buffy Sainte-Marie, the protest singer. Jimi Hendrix, whose paternal grandmother was one-quarter Cherokee, appears, as does jazz singer Mildred Bailey, whom a young Bing Crosby credited with giving him his start.
And then there’s Link Wray, whose 1958 song “Rumble” — supposedly so named because it reminded listeners of a gang fight — pioneered the use of distortion, feedback and the power chord, a mix that made some radio stations so nervous they refused to play the song for fear that it might incite violence. Nonetheless, Wray went on to inspire musicians from Pete Townshend and Neil Young to Iggy Pop and MC5.
“It wasn’t till later on that I found out that Link Wray was an Indian,” of Shawnee heritage, says Robbie Robertson, the songwriter and guitarist, who learned to play guitar on the Six Nations reserve in Ontario. “It just made the whole thing 10 times cooler to me.”
One of the most striking aspects of the documentary is how, like Robertson, few people knew these artists’ backgrounds. For every Redbone, the ’70s rockers who openly embraced their Indian roots, there were dozens of others who did not, worried that racism would derail their careers.
The film was inspired by “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture,” an exhibition mounted at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2010. Sensing that the topic would lend itself well to a documentary, the curators sought out Catherine Bainbridge, whose acclaimed 2009 documentary “Reel Injun” examined Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans.
Throughout, the film reveals how Native American rhythms and stylings became a part of the larger tapestry of American music. In one scene, poet and musician Joy Harjo explains how the call and response of Muscogee music influenced the evolution of jazz and blues; in another, singer-songwriter Pura Fe connects the blues guitar and vocal inflections with traditional Indian music.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: Not rated.