Rumble: The Indians who rocked the world

Who’s that seated on the left, next to John Lennon?

Rumble is a documentary (in theaters now) which explores how American-Indian music and musicians influenced many genres, particularly Rock.

As a kid, session musician Stevie Salas would savor the classic concert movie Bangladesh, which chronicled George Harrison’s all-star benefit show from 1971. “How did I watch that movie over and over and never notice that, standing right next to George, was this giant Native American guitar player named Jesse Ed Davis?” Salas asked. “I just thought ‘Wow, he’s a cool-looking guy.’ It’s amazing to me that I never made the connection.”

That’s especially amazing considering Salas himself is Native American. Yet it was only decades later, after Salas made a conscious effort to seek out other indigenous people in popular music, that he looked into Davis’s history.  […]

Mainstream stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn can all claim varying degrees of indigenous blood. “This is buried history,” says Catherine Bainbridge, director of Rumble. “Once people hear about this they think, ‘Wow, how did I not realize this before?” […]

Within the film, Cyril Neville stresses the importance of Mardi Gras to Indians. “Tourists think of it like Halloween,” Salas said. “But to these guys it’s the only time they’re allowed to dress like who they are and not get in trouble.”


The Guardian review is the most informative, though both Variety and the NY Times have reviewed the documentary (see excerpts below). The Leonard Lopate show on NPR interviewed the producers (podcast link), that is definitely worth a listen.

The documentary is a welcome addition to the expansive story of how Blues, Jazz and Rock musicians influenced each other. It enriches our understanding of how Native American cultures and tradition contributed to the creation of entirely new forms of music.

The film 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. A few episodes are less satisfying than others, but only because they spotlight intriguing yet obscure figures that audiences likely would want to learn about in greater detail.  —…

There’s a broader story here about why these musicians sometimes masked their indigenous heritage, or why so many of us failed to recognize them them as American-Indians. Even when musicians with Native American ancestry literally wore it on their sleeves, most failed to see it. The director Bainbridge talks about how Jimi Hendrix sometimes wore fringe and beads. His sister says he did it to remember his Cherokee grandmother. Most fans saw it as a fashion statement.

The survey starts with the guitarist Link Wray, who was Shawnee. Wray “made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock ’n’ roll was going to go,” Robbie Robertson of the Band says. Wray’s 1958 single, “Rumble,”was banned from airplay in several cities amid worries that it would incite teenage gang violence (despite being a wordless, instrumental tune), and Wray’s guitar line seems to echo in every power chord. […]

Charley Patton, who profoundly shaped the blues, is profiled in another section before the film moves to Mildred Bailey, Jesse Ed Davis, members of the band Redbone and others, all of whom had Indian heritage. We hear about childhoods spent listening and learning from grandparents who passed on traditions, and of discrimination encountered in the broader world. “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell,” Mr. Robertson, who is part Mohawk, says of a prevailing attitude when he was younger. —…