DOCUMENTARY "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World" airing on PBS' "Independent Lens"
WHEN|WHERE Monday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT’S ABOUT This wide-ranging music documentary (which had a brief theatrical release last year) takes its name from “Rumble,” a 1958 hit by guitarist Link Wray and one of the first tracks to feature the aggressive power-chords that would help define modern rock ‘n’ roll. Wray was of Shawnee descent and his background played a powerful role in his music -- a narrative that plays out repeatedly as this doc focuses on a half-dozen American Indian figures who made important contributions to popular music. Executive produced by Stevie Salas, a session guitarist of Apache descent, “Rumble” argues that the accepted origin story of rock music — as an outgrowth of African-American culture — is missing some important chapters about the influence of Americans Indians.
MY SAY First and foremost, rock fans of any ethnicity will find plenty to appreciate in “Rumble.” Because it covers so many different genres and eras, it’s likely to be informative to just about anyone. How many rockers would know about Mildred Bailey, an American Indian jazz powerhouse of the 1930s? How many jazzers would know about Jesse Ed Davis, the Comanche-Kiowa guitarist who played that sweet solo on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor, My Eyes?” Who among us would give more than a passing thought to the Canadian folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie?
To get to these nuggets, you’ll have to be patient as “Rumble” finds its footing. Directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana open their film with a discussion of the Native American sound and its impact on early popular music. It’s a fascinating topic, though the filmmakers don’t always provide the clearest evidence. Early field recordings of indigenous songs, heard only briefly, don’t bear an immediate resemblance to early blues or folk. Then again, that might be in the ear of the beholder. Listening to an old recording of Charley Patton — the legendary bluesman who likely had some native ancestry — the vocalist Pura Fé says, “When I hear this, it’s Indian music to me.”
“Rumble” grows in confidence as it goes along. It addresses the intermingling of African Americans and Native Americans, two of America’s lowest social castes in the early 20th Century, and the notion that many indigenous people preferred to pass as black. Growing up during the 1960s on Canada’s Six Nations reserve the guitarist Robbie Robertson says, the mantra was: “Be proud that you’re an Indian -- but be careful who you tell.”
In that context, artists who sometimes seemed to indulge in Native American shtick look a little braver in retrospect. It was Jimi Hendrix, we’re told, who encouraged the 1970s band Redbone to exploit their heritage and “do the Indian thing.” Redbone’s appearance on the late-night rock show “The Midnight Special,” dressed in full tribal regalia and accompanied by a traditional dancer before launching into their easy-listening hit “Come and Get Your Love,” is an unlikely highlight of this documentary. It’s worth noting that this lesser-known band was one of the few to proudly announce its heritage and claim a place in the mainstream spotlight. As Rolling Stone writer David Fricke puts it: “They win.”
BOTTOM LINE A solid rock-doc that turns up the volume on a little-noticed influence in American pop music.