Ignored for decades, the contributions of Native Americans to popular music inspire “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” an enlightening and exhilarating documentary.
Filmmakers Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana challenge the perception that Native Americans have been virtually absent from the popular-music stage and recording studio by profiling 10 successful North American rock, jazz, blues and folk acts with Native American ancestry. Some lived in times when they had to hide it.
“Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell” was the philosophy that applied, says Robbie Robertson, one of the film’s subjects.
Robertson, renowned for his work with the Band and Bob Dylan, says that his “real guitar lessons were at the Six Nations Indian Reserve.”
Along with exploring how Native American traditions shaped their music, the film reveals how its featured artists have influenced non-Native popular-music giants. Dozens of notables — Steven Van Zandt, Taj Mahal, Tony Bennett, Joy Harjo, Quincy Jones and Martin Scorsese, among others — elaborate.
Historical details explain how Native American music intermixed with African American music and how the government tried to erase aspects of both cultures.
Profiled first is Link Wray, the Shawnee whose 1958 instrumental single “Rumble,” introduced the power chord and excited future stars like Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page. The song sounded so raw and rebellious that some radio stations, fearing it would promote juvenile delinquency, banned it.
Next up is 1920s delta-blues pioneer Charley Patton, whose vocals and guitar work inspired, among others, Howlin’ Wolf, whose music impressed the Rolling Stones. Patton, who was part Chocktaw, used his guitar percussively, circumventing the ban on the Native American drum.
Mildred Bailey, a 1930s jazz diva, had a vocal quality suggesting the styles she likely heard at the Coeur d’Alene reservation. Tony Bennett is among those singing her praises.
Folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie talks about being blacklisted because of her activism on Native American issues.
Jimi Hendrix had a part-Cherokee grandmother who instilled cultural pride in him.
Additional featured acts include Redbone (advised by Hendrix to “Do the Indian thing, man”) and Jesse Ed Davis, whose guitar work Jackson Browne extols.
Covering nine decades and packed with celebrities past and present, the film is more wide-ranging than penetrating. Its later segments are less captivating than its earlier ones.
But it vividly tells a story important to our knowledge of popular music and of government-sanctioned racism targeting Native American (and African American) culture. It also illustrates how such policies failed miserably.
Less academically, it’s a blast of energy and a stirring musician showcase.
After watching this film, you may find yourself hearing songs like “Doctor My Eyes” and “I Can See for Miles” in new ways.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
Starring Robbie Robertson, Steven Van Zandt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Taj Mahal
Written and directed by Catherine Bainbridge, Alfonso Maiorana
Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes
Note The movie screens at the Opera Plaza.