It's common knowledge popular music in North America has deep roots in Africa and other countries around the world. What probably isn't so well known is the influence the indigenous people of the continent have had on the music we've listened to and continue to hear on our radios. A new documentary, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, from Rezolution Pictures, being released in select theatres across North America on July 26 2017, is a big step towards opening people's eyes to this massive omission in the history of popular music.
Taking its name from the infamous song "Rumble" by Link Wray through interviews and film footage the movie traces indigenous influence on popular music from its earliest beginnings to today. The first rock and roll song by a Native American, "Rumble", as well as being one of the songs which inspired Pete Townshead, Jimmy Page, and countless others to pick up a guitar, was also one of the first instrumental songs banned from the radio. Maybe it was the title or maybe it was the sheer threatening sound of the guitar, but somehow it was deemed too dangerous for the delicate ears of the American radio audience of the 1950s.
However, although the movie starts with rock and roll, it also reveals the roll indigenous people have played in the development of country, blues and jazz. Blues musicians Charlie Patton and Howling Wolf had native blood. Not only did the latter create great music in his own right, but he was one of the musicians who influenced bands like the Rolling Stones. In fact, aside from the obvious like Robbie Robertson and Buffy St-Marie, what will really surprise you is how many musicians from across different genres are Native American or First Nations from Canada.
The movie travels across North America from the Grand River Six Nations reserve, home to Robertson, in Southern Ontario Canada to the Mexican Native roots of Black Eyed Peas vocalist Taboo. It takes us down to New Orleans where it reveals the Choctaw roots behind the elaborate Native style costumes seen in Mardi Gras parades each year. Cyril Neville, of the Neville Brothers, (Choctaw himself) put it simply; run away slaves were given shelter on reserves and the next thing you know - black Indians.
We also travel up to the Carolinas where we talk to Pura Fe Crescioni (Tuscarora) about her group Ulali and the influence her people had on early country and bluegrass music. Over in Idaho is the home of early jazz singer Mildred Bailey of the Coure d'Alene nation.
We hear a native woman singing a traditional Coure d'Alene song and then listen to Bailey and hear where her vocal styling and intonation came from. Everyone from Tony Bennet to Frank Sinatra have talked about Bailey being an inspiration to their singing careers. Listen to any Billie Holiday song, her vocal trills in the high registers, and you're hearing Mildred Bailey and by extension the Coure d'Alene.
Some of the names mentioned in the movie are probably not going to be familiar to contemporary audiences. But guitarists like Jesse Ed Davis played with everyone from Taj Mahal to Rod Stewart and the Faces and sat in for Eric Clapton at George Harrison's concert for Bangladesh. He also was the one who convinced the late activist and poet John Trudell to set his words to music on albums such as Graffiti Man. While Trudell appears in the movie, to talk about Davis and other musicians, his influence can't be underestimated either as he went on to inspire a new generation of bands including A Tribe Called Red.
Of course no movie about indigenous rock and roll musicians would be complete without mentioning Jimi Hendrix and the first Native American band to have a hit single, Redbone. While the connection between the band who recorded "Come and Get Your Love" (One of the first songs heard in Guardians of the Galaxy) and the guy who seared people's ears with his version of "The Star Spangled Banner" might not be obvious it was there.
For it was Hendrix who advised them to "Do the Indian thing", which resulted in Redbone showing up on television shows like The Midnight Special in full regalia and starting their set with traditional dancing. There's a lovely moment in the movie where Taboo and Pat Vegas of Redbone meet up and the former tells the latter how the beat from "Come and Get Your Love" influenced a Black Eyed Peas track.
With contributions from Buddy Guy, Steven Van Zandt, Wayne Kramer, Iggy Pop, Steven Tyler and other non-Native musicians, the picture developed by this movie is of a population widely unrecognized for their contributions to popular music. Not only have indigenous musicians been some of the most influential of their times, but so much of "our" music has its origins in Native traditions.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World is an exhaustive and exhilarating ride through the music of the modern era. While there have been other movies and TV shows which have taken us on this journey, this movie tells a familiar story from a perspective we've never seen before.
By times heartening and other times heart breaking for a variety of reasons, this movie will open your eyes and ears in a way few music documentaries have done in the past. If you have any interest in the popular music of the last hundred years, than this movie is a must see. It will make you listen to everything from country to jazz, blues, and rock in a whole new way.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Movie Review: Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World)
(Originally posted July 2017)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.