Link Wray — whose birthday we celebrate May 2 — looms large in this documentary about the influence of Native American musicmakers.
According to Stevie Salas, the celebrated Apache Indian rock guitarist who served as an executive producer on the film, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World happened “because I was playing sold-out arenas and stadiums with Rod Stewart, and while on the road across America I started to wonder why there were no other Native Americans in the biz. Then I discovered there were indeed others who, for reasons unknown to me, people didn’t know about.”
Salas’ interest grew when Canadian writer Brian Wright McLeod interviewed him for McLeod’s The Encyclopedia of Native American Music, which focused on the oft-neglected Indian heritage of many famous musicians in popular culture. “And from that book,” Salas says, “that's how Tim Johnson and I created the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibit, Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.” Much to their surprise, they discovered “many legendary music industry friends like Steven Tyler, George Clinton, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, Mike Inez, Taylor Hawkins, Slash, Taboo and others were really excited to talk about the influence that these Native American musicians had on their art and their lives.”
Shortly afterwards, Salas connected with Rezolution Pictures, the Canadian-based outfit behind the 2009 documentary Reel Injun (see below). Rezolution co-founder Catherine Bainbridge shared Salas’ enthusiasm for telling the stories behind the stories, and signed on to direct the documentary that would become known as Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, and currently is available on various streaming platforms.
“Native American music – born of this land — was violently suppressed for many years as both American and Canadian governments outlawed Native ceremonies and rituals in a deliberate attempt to break the people,” Bainbridge says. “As a result, the music was forced underground and found its expression in alternative ways. Is it any wonder that one of the most powerful songs in the history of rock music — the song that helped start the revolution — was by a Shawnee Indian named Link Wray [1929-2005], and it had no lyrics? Just raw, powerful, distorted guitar. A powerful yell.”
As I noted in my review for the showbiz trade paper Variety, Rumble “is structured more or less as a series of individual portraits of 10 significant artists, ranging from Delta blues great Charley Patton to iconic electric guitarist Jimi Hendrix (who was part Cherokee) to living legend Robbie Robertson. ... The title comes from ‘Rumble,’ the smash hit 1958 instrumental single by Link Wray (born in North Carolina to Shawnee parents) driven by innovative power chord riffs that would later influence Iggy Pop, Pete Townshend, and hosts of other rock, pop, and heavy metal masters. Taj Mahal, one of the film’s several on-camera interviewees, recalls that the song actually made him ‘levitate out of bed about four feet’ the first time he heard it on the radio. Indeed, ‘Rumble’ was banned from the airwaves in many U.S. markets because, as Stevie Van Zandt gleefully notes, the scary swagger it conveyed made it sound like ‘a theme song for juvenile delinquency.’
“After kicking off with a tribute to Wray and his legacy, [director Catherine] Bainbridge continues with a neatly balanced mix of biographical sketches and historical context. Working with co-writer and co-director Alfonso Maiorana, she nimbly skips from place to place, period to period, taking time to focus on the symbiosis of Native and African-American musical traditions, shameful U.S. government campaigns to eradicate the cultures of Indigenous people (Ghost Dancers were among those slaughtered during the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890) and the defiant political statements of artists such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and John Trudell — the late activist who appears frequently in Rumble, and to whom the documentary is dedicated.”
Shortly before the 2017 release of their documentary, I had opportunities to speak with Catherine Bainbridge and Stevie Salas about Rumble. Here are some highlights from our conversations.
Cowboys & Indians: To start out with the obvious question: Did you come together on this project already knowing a lot about the Native American influence on American popular music? Like, did you know people like Link Wray, and Pat and Lolly Davis of Redbone, and jazz singer Mildred Bailey actually were Native Americans?
Catherine Bainbridge: That’s funny. You know, Ernie West, my husband, is an executive producer on the film. We’ve been making Indigenous-themed films for 25 years. Well, he didn’t know. I mean, we knew about Redbone, but we didn't know about Link Wray. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of Link Wray. That’s how little I knew about music, in terms of history, going into this. Now I’ve become a music nerd. I am officially a music nerd now. We met all these people, and interviewed such smart and wonderful people, while on our journey making the film. From the generation where everyone read all the liner notes, you know? [Laughs.] I’m fascinated with music history, because it’s a really interesting way to understand our own history.
C&I: Stevie, when you started out, back before you helped set up the Smithsonian exhibit, did you know Link Wray was a Native America?
Stevie Salas: Nope. I knew who Link Wray was. Didn’t know he was Native American. And you know what’s funny? You want to hear something really crazy? Jeff Beck is a huge fan of Native American culture. And Jeff Beck is a huge fan of Link Wray. Wray’s one of his biggest influences. Jeff Beck told me, “Me and Jimmy Page used to sit in my bedroom and play air guitar to Link Wray.” And then, I assumed that because of Jeff’s knowledge of Native American history that he loves so much — you know, he wears his chokers on stage. I mean, he and his wife Sandra are really deep into a love of Native American history and heritage. But when I told him Link Wray was Native American, he looked at me like, “What?” He had no idea, either. Which really shocked me. I just assumed he knew. And he didn’t.
C&I: What did you see as your primary goal in making Rumble?
Stevie Salas: Well, going back to the exhibit — the whole point was showing that these guys weren’t just cool and great, but that they actually influenced the history of pop music as we know it. You know, so in order to prove that and not just have it be me saying it, I was gonna let the biggest musicians in the world, who we all know, talk about who influenced them. And so when Steven Tyler sat down with me and he said, “When I was trying to get the sound of Aerosmith, Joe Perry and I were listening to lots of records and all we listened to was Taj Mahal, with Jesse Ed Davis.” He kept referencing Jesse Ed Davis. And he goes, “That was the sound, when we were trying to get whatever the Aerosmith sound was gonna sound like. We said, ‘That’s the sound we want.’” And I was like, “Oh my God! There he was, saying Jesse Ed Davis influenced one of the biggest rock band in the history of America.”
And then the same thing happened later when we found out that’s how Duane Allman learned to how to play slide guitar. They actually talked about it in that documentary called Muscle Shoals. What happened was, Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers were recording there, and Duane broke his arm, broke his wrist, and he couldn’t play the guitar for a month. So his brother bought him that Taj Mahal album, again, with Jesse Ed Davis. And Allman said because he couldn’t play because of his fingers, he learned how to play slide guitar listening to Jesse Ed Davis. You know, Duane Allman, probably one of the greatest slide guitar players in the history of America. And there it was, right there, him telling you how he learned how to play slide guitar from this Native American Kiowa Indian, right?
Catherine Bainbridge: When we premiered the film at the Sundance Film Festival, we won this incredible award, the jury award for “masterful storytelling.” I can’t imagine a better award for our group to have won. Because we had a whole team of archivists and researchers for our little team. But then the people that we interviewed had literally done 10, 20, 30 years of research. And we got the benefit of it. That’s why it was such a great award, because it acknowledged everyone in the film.
Really, there are lots of storytellers in the film. Like the women from [the Native American a cappella singing group] Ulali. Those women have carried their story about the influence of Indigenous singing and music on blues and jazz for many years. They knew that story. And we’re so glad they shared it with us.
C&I: One of the highlights of Rumble is your interview with Tony Bennett, who speaks so glowingly of jazz singer Mildred Bailey, and gratefully acknowledges her influence on him.
Stevie Salas: Well, yeah, the whole idea again was to show that these guys influenced popular music history, not just rock and roll. Like, here’s Mildred Bailey. And who was the first singer that she hired to sing on her radio show? Bing Crosby. She discovered Bing Crosby, one of America’s biggest iconic singers. His first gig was singing for a Native American woman who was the first Native American woman who ever had her own radio show.
There’s a ton of things like that, things that make you go, “Oh my God!” And when people watch the film, they’re like that, they’re like, “Oh my God. I had no idea.” So it turns into a real eye-opener. And it’s not a race film. It’s not like, “Oh we got screwed, us Indians didn’t get no credit.” It’s more like, we just didn’t know. And somehow, and for reasons unknown to me, these things didn’t come out. Until now.
C&I: At what point did you decide to dedicate the film to John Trudell?
Catherine Bainbridge: After he passed. Yeah, he passed during the edit. And while we were editing, it was clear to all of us that he was the film’s spiritual center. We always looked to him for guidance when we were making Rumble. So it was very clear to us that the film should be dedicated to him.
C&I: Do you think part of the reason why many of us have been so slow to recognize the Native American influence on popular culture is — well, many Native Americans have been wary of acknowledging themselves? At one point in Rumble, Robbie Robertson, whose mother was a Mohawk raised on Canada’s Six Nations Reserve, talks about being warned by other Mohawks during his youth to downplay his heritage: “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.”
Stevie Salas: Hey, well, let me put it to you this way. I'm 53 years old, and I recently moved to Austin, Texas. And in order to get your driver’s license, you have to have your Social Security card. And I haven’t had a Social Security card since I was sixteen, because I lost it when I was a kid, right? And so I had to go down and get one. And in order to get it I had to get a birth certificate, so I had to call back to Oceanside, California, where I was born, because my father worked in the Marine Corps. And I got a birth certificate that says my mom and my dad were white. It said flat out: “White.”
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen my parents, but they’re both Apache. They don’t look anything close to white. And I even posted on Facebook: “Hey everybody, look! I got my birth certificate. I found out some great news ... I might be white!” [Laughs.] The thing was your parents just put that on there because they thought that would maybe give you a better shot at being successful in life, you know. That’s the way things were back in the day. So I think that’s what that was all about.
C&I: Finally, do you think Rumble might inspire someone to make a Link Wray biopic?
Stevie Salas: [Laughs.] That could happen. Just for his first power chords — he obviously influenced Jimmy Page, Pete Townsend and Jeff Beck, our Mount Rushmore of rock guitar players. And people like Ray Davies and the Kinks. OK, that’s 1958. Now cut 20 years later, when most people in rock and roll are already old men, and you have the birth of punk rock. And there’s Link Wray influencing punk rock, because his records all of a sudden sounded like punk rock records. And then he’s playing guitar with Robert Gordon and making hit records 20 years after Rumble and he’s as relevant as can be. OK, he disappears again — and then boom! There’s Robert Rodriguez starting to use him in scripts and in every soundtrack, and he gets Quentin Tarantino to put “Rumble” in Pulp Fiction, and there he is again now. How many years later, is that 40 years later? And he’s still influencing soundtracks.”
Here are two other documentaries about Native American culture well worth streaming. Click on the title, and you'll fine where to watch them.
Produced with backing from the National Film Board of Canada, Reel Injun follows Cree Indian director helmer Neil Diamond (no relation to the singer) on a cross-country road trip as he interviews Native American critics, academics, cineastes and standup comics, along with a few non-Indian notables (including Clint Eastwood and Jim Jarmusch), to fashion a mostly critical but ultimately hopeful history lesson. His 2009 documentary duly notes that, despite the relatively sympathetic treatment of Native American characters in silent movies, the indelible stereotype of the bloodthirsty savage was established fairly early in talkies. John Wayne movies in general, and Stagecoach in particular, are recalled with particular disdain.
Reel Injun has more than its share of humorous moments, especially when Diamond and his subjects discuss various historical and anthropological inaccuracies of westerns that cast conspicuously Caucasian actors in red-face makeup — ranging from Elvis Presley to Charles Bronson. As one interviewee notes, real Indians seldom if ever wore headbands — but pale-faced actors certainly needed them to hold their wigs in place during action scenes. More often, however, the tone of the documentary is respectfully serious, though well short of angry, while focusing on how the stereotypical depictions of marauding redskins affected the self-images of Native Americans. In this context, actors such as Chief Dan George, Graham Greene and Adam Beach are viewed as significant role models, and Native filmmakers such as Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) and Zacharias Kunuk (The Fast Runner) are hailed as invaluable truth-tellers as well as entertaining storytellers.
So here's the pitch: Jessie Little Doe, a Native American social worker, starts to have recurring dreams in which vaguely familiar people from another era talk to her in an incomprehensible language. Jessie — a feisty and inquisitive thirtysomething — is befuddled and annoyed: Why can't these folks just speak English? Only gradually does she realize that they're speaking Wampanoag, the ancient language of her tribal ancestors. A language no one had used for more than a century. These and other events send Jessie and members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanaog communities on an odyssey to uncover hundreds of documents written in their language. Which in turn leads her to pursue a master's degree in Linguistics at MIT and, more important, accomplish something no one has ever done before – bring a language alive again in an American Indian community many generations after its last Native speakers had passed away.
This may sound like the stuff of uplifting fiction, but it's actually the true-life tale compellingly told by award-winning filmmaker Anne Makepeace in the 2010 documentary We Still Live Here. “It is a story of Native Americans taking charge of their history and their identities,” Makepeace said before her film’s PBS premiere, “reaching back to the words of their ancestors and forward to their children’s futures. My hope is that Native Americans and Indigenous people around the world whose languages and cultures are endangered will take heart and renew their efforts to revive and revitalize their Native tongues, so that this country and this world retains its rich and infinitely varied cultural diversity.”
Photo: Bruce Steinberg courtesy linkwray.com / Kino Lorber.