One effect of privilege is that people who have it — people who are white, male, straight, well-off, etc — get remembered for their cultural contributions. People without privilege get forgotten. Alternatively, contributions are attributed to people with privilege when they were really just building on contributions from people without.
So when it comes to music, for instance, people know about white artists like Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Far fewer know about Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, or Robert Johnson — all African-American musicians who helped lay the foundations for blues and rock ‘n roll.
Even fewer know about the contributions from Native American artists. I certainly had no idea. And that’s the oversight the new documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World seeks to correct.
It takes its title from “Rumble,” a 1958 instrumental track from early rock ‘n roller Link Wray. You might recognize it from the “milkshake” scene in Pulp Fiction. It’s a smokey and swaggering number, built off a simple three chord motif, and Wray basically invented guitar distortion in the course of making it. The song was also banned for its potential to insight juvenile delinquency.
Wray is one of those musicians who isn’t super famous himself, but who all the famous musicians know and name as an influence. He was also of Shawnee heritage, and Rumble makes the case that the influence of the Native American musical tradition can be found in Wray’s contributions to rock ‘n roll.
He’s far from all. Rumble namechecks Charlie Patton, a black musician largely considered the father of Mississippi Delta blues, who may well have had Cherokee ancestry; Mildred Bailey, a Native American jazz singer; Buffy Sainet-Marie, a 60s folk singer born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve; Redbone, a 60s rock group that celebrated its Native American heritage, and who wrote “Come and Get Your Love,” which showed up on the title sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy. Stevie Salas, a Native American guitarist who worked with the likes of Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, served as executive producer for Rumble.
The documentary’s most poignant character is probably Jessie Ed Davis, a preternaturally talented guitarist of Kiowa descent. He played with just about everybody back in rock ‘n roll’s heyday — most famously on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor, My Eyes” — but then ultimately died of a drug overdose.
At two hours, Rumble is probably a bit too long for its own good. It’s also very episodic, moving from one historical tidbit or musician biography to the next, with little connective tissue other than the film’s overall mission statement. That structure weighs down the pacing a bit. But those tidbits and biographies also pack in a ton of information. This is a woefully under-explored aspect of America’s musical heritage, so you can hardly blame directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana for wanting to throw in everything they could.
The most brutal portions of Rumble, not surprisingly, deal with the psychopathic lengths white society went to in stamping out Native American culture. There was, of course, the slaughter of men, women, and children. But the genocide also took subtler forms, like outlawing tribal dances and banning drums as instruments of insurrection — hence why a lot of early folk musicians relied on acoustic guitars instead, and played them pretty percussively. Since many Native Americans knew how to hunt and resist and live off the land, the early European settlers also often broke up families: they shipped the men off to far plantations to work as slaves, and brought black male slaves in to work alongside the Native American women and children. The blending of African-American and Native American musical traditions resulted — a history Rumble highlights by a neat bit on New Orleans.
Perhaps the most remarkable moment comes when a Native American musician and historian puts on an old scratchy record of Charlie Patton. If you’re familiar with the early 20th century acoustic blues from the South, you’ll recognize the way Patton draws out his notes and his mewling verbalizations. Then the woman begins essentially doing a Native American chant to the same tune Patton is singing. And suddenly the common musical DNA becomes unmistakable.
Bainbridge and Maiorana’s direction is yeoman’s work: straightforward and effective. It gets the job done in traditional documentary style with few bells or whistles. Despite the cumbersome weight of material they’re dealing with, they keep the pace relatively brisk, and know when to segue the audience into a new arc. Moments of beauty, both musical and cultural and narrative, abound.
The imprint of oppression stays in the fabric of society, even after the most dramatic concrete acts of oppression has ceased. So remembering what actually was takes work, and, frankly, a fair bit of luck. Rumble is a welcome part of that necessary project. The film demonstrates that, as much as white society tried to stamp out Native American culture, it didn’t entirely succeed. The notes are still lying all around us, half hidden, ready to be picked up and composed anew. It’s a documentary you should watch — and hear.