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Native Americans Who Changed Music Are Centerstage In 'Rumble'

Kino Lorber

For years I’ve misunderstood the African-American’s in New Orleans who for Mardi Gras dress up in flamboyant Native American clothing. But now, with Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, one learns that many of these human beings are also Native Americans, and you can hear it in the lively New Orleans music. Ivan Neville calls it a “gumbo.” 

According to the film, many of the Africans brought to this country as slaves were male. The racism of the time, as we know, prevented marriage with white women – and as a result there are a lot of people who are part black and part Native American. And a lot of them, along with many Native Americans who are not part black, have played a rich role in American popular music, and not just rock ‘n’ roll.

Charlie Patton, the man considered the parent of Mississippi Delta Blues, for instance. And from him descend the great blues musicians Howlin’ Wolf and Son House. Robbie Robertson of The Band, a Mohawk. The Neville Brothers. And lots of other people. Native Americans are still among the most ignored of all minority groups in America, so this history matters, and it’s a lovely surprise for those who don’t know it.

The documentary starts with a long section on Link Wray, a great rock-n-roll guitarist who shook up the music world – and more than that – with his 1958 recording and performance of his song “Rumble.” It’s an instrumental piece – no lyrics – that somehow pressed a lot of emotional music buttons. Some people thought its raw expression would spell the end of human civilization as we know it. “Rumble” has been called the “theme song of juvenile delinquency,” and it was banned in some places on the belief that it would cause gang violence. Others, like Iggy Pop, figure it is one of the great statements in music, and probably for the same reasons. Marky Ramone says eloquently and with great sarcastic humor that not everyone can be Pat Boone. Link Wray was the first to use the power chord, among other things. He was also a Shawnee from North Carolina.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World traces a fascinating history. It goes back to the Ghost Dance of the late 19th century to talk about Indian desperation, and what some believe is a long pattern of the cultural powers suppressing Indian music. The film describes the famous Dockery Plantation in Mississippi, where people of color were treated decently and where music flourished. Mildred Bailey, who grew up on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho, became one of the greatest of jazz singers and had a tremendous influence on Frank Sinatra and on Tony Bennett, who talks about her in the film.

And, of course, Buffy Ste. Marie, a Cree from Canada, appears in the film as performer and commentator.

It’s unfortunate that Rumble isn’t clear about either its subject or its connections. It’s about a range of popular music, not just rock ‘n roll. There may well be a trail from the Ghost Dance to part-Cherokee Jimi Hendrix and then to the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota., In the film, though, the story is muddy.     

Yet, individual segments are thrilling. The archival footage gives constant surprise and delight. One shot shows three southern water fountains – for colored, white and Indian. It’s exciting to see where these terrific musicians come from. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World shows how much of American popular music really is American in a full sense of the word. Listening to Jimi Hendrix grows even richer than it was before – to know and start to hear Native American influences . . . and to realize that one thing The Rolling Stones did was to cycle back to America the earliest music of this place – as if it were new, according to Buddy Guy.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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