There is a music video in the new documentary Rumble: Indians who shook the world, which perfectly sums up the subject of the film. Native American rock band Redbone, dressed in colorful tribal costumes, perform their hit song ‘Come and Get Your Love’ during a television performance in 1974. Band member Tony Bellamy begins the number by performing what we calls it a Fancy Dance, a Plains powwow tradition with fanciful chanting and footwork. Then he strips off his feathered clothes, picks up an electric guitar, and the band breaks into the song, which reached No. 5 on the pop charts and was recently featured in guardians of the galaxy.
It’s a really exciting multicultural experience. And as the documentary makes clear, Redbone, which included members of the Yaqui and Shoshone tribes, weren’t the only Native Americans who played a key role in the gumbo that makes up American pop culture.
“American Indians pose a challenge to what we generally think of as rock history, which has been very black and white,” says John Troutman, curator of music at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, who is interviewed in the film. “Rock and roll is full of people from all walks of life, and when you talk to musicians, they’re all fully aware of that. But no one had come together to reveal the extent of their [American Indians] participating in music.
“Native Americans were purposely isolated from society as soon as the white man arrived here,” adds rolling stone writer David Fricke, also interviewed in the film, explaining their absence from rock history. “They were no longer part of the narrative.”
Rumble, which won a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, opens in New York on July 26, followed by a nationwide rollout, and is the brainchild of Stevie Salas, an Apache guitarist who played with Rod Stewart, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Eddie Money and many more. Salas, who is executive producer of To scold (the film was directed by Catherine Bainbridge), says he first realized there were other Indians in rock when he started playing for Stewart in the 1980s, but it was not until the beginning of this century that he fully realized their influence. It was then that he discovered Link Wray, a Shawnee whose 1958 instrumental hit “Rumble” introduced the power chord to rock and roll.
“That’s when my brain exploded,” says Salas, “because Native Americans don’t have role models. No one wanted to be Native American. It was something we kept to ourselves, something we didn’t talk about. There were Native Americans doing these things back then, but no one saw them.
Salas took this new knowledge and helped create “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture”, a 2010-2011 exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. “And that’s when I said I had to find someone to do a movie,” he says.
Beginning with the influence Link Wray’s recording has had on other rockers – “‘Rumble’ had the power to push me over the edge”, says Iggy Pop in the film – the documentary offers a brief lesson in the subjugation of Native American culture, how it survived, and how so many musicians of Native American blood absorbed and contributed to our country’s pop music. They’re all here: bluesmen Charley Patton (Cherokee) and Howlin’ Wolf (Choctaw), 1930s jazz singer Mildred Bailey (Cour D’Alene), folk singer Buffy Sainte Marie (Cree), Jimi Hendrix (part Cherokee), Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas (Shoshone), Jesse Ed Davis (a Kiowa who performed the guitar solo on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” in one take) and more.
This contribution is all the more astonishing since from the end of the 19th century, the American government did its best to annihilate Indian culture. Troutman mentions a “campaign of assimilation” that essentially banned Native dances and music because they “seemed so foreign to white Americans” and were “problematic”. [because] they carried on tribal traditions. In large part, these government officials felt they could assert the management of these people’s lives in any way possible.
Salas adds that part of this was also the fear of indigenous cultures, because “in the beginning, the way they gathered and prepared for war was using drums. That’s how they communicated. They were trying to stop the communication, the uprising.
Ironically, drumming is one of American Indians’ most significant contributions to rock and pop. For example, To scold features a lengthy streak on Randie Castillo, an Apache who worked with Ozzy Osbourne and is widely regarded as one of heavy metal’s greatest drummers. Salas says if you “take that Native American four on the floor and mix it with African polyrhythm, you’ll have funky blues. There’s just something about Indian rhythms.
But, says Fricke, “it’s not necessarily that there’s a Native American quality to rock and roll. What you see is a hidden part of the American population that is making quantitative and qualitative progress. When you meet someone like Link Wray, he not only invented the power chord, but also wrote the song that popularized it. It’s that a Native American had a totally original idea, and it became the essence of something much bigger.
Troutman adds, “It’s hard to tell there’s that Indian sound. It is important to consider individual contributions. Let’s realize that there’s this other element here operating, that they’re living their lives in other capacities, but also totally involved in popular culture.
Salas says he wanted to make a movie about the American Indian contribution to rock because “I didn’t want to do another victim movie, I wanted to do a movie about people doing good things. We’re telling an untold story that’s now out of the box, so when you talk about pop music history, we’re rightfully part of the story.
Or, when asked what viewers should take away from To scold after seeing it, Troutman sums it up quite succinctly: “Prepare to have your expectations totally shattered for the story of the music you love.”