It might seem strange, considering its focus, that Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana’s Rumble: The Indians that Rocked the World, is both titled after and anchored by Link Wray’s searing 1955 instrumental hit. It’s the one song explored in the film that, on its surface, has the least to do with the culture, history, and experience of American Indians, but that very sense of abstraction might be the point. As both familiar and singular as the song is — ts use of power chords, distortion, and feedback essentially setting the groundwork for virtually everything that followed it — not so familiar is the fact that Wray was half-Shawnee. Rumble attempts to crack open the lid on the repressed history of Native American involvement in 20th century pop and rock music; an involvement kept secret by genocide, oppression, and segregation. It’s easy to shirk at another talking head and archival footage led music documentary doing the festival rounds, but Rumble is a surprisingly satisfying and very well assembled film that delivers the kind of “untold story” too many other music documentaries merely promise.
The film focuses, almost episodically, on a dozen or so important Native American musicians, each taking us to a different part of America and discussing how the Indian experience has shaped different types of music there. In New Orleans we meet Mardi Gras Indian performer Monk Boudreaux and are introduced to the history of Indians masking as Blacks; a necessity, as poet John Sinclair tells us, “because the Indians were treated even worse than the [black] slaves”. In Mississippi, both music and Native American historians discuss blues pioneer and quarter-Cherokee Charley Patton, and the similarities between early blues music and traditional Indian music of the area. A significant portion of the film is devoted to a kind of recontextualisation of rock’s most important moments, as seen through the lens of Native American involvement. Bob Dylan’s confrontation with the “Judas” heckler at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall becomes even more defiant when placed within the narrative of backing band The Hawks’ lead guitarist Robbie Robertson (half-Mohawk), being told as a teenager not to follow his dream of being a musician out of fear of the violence he’d face. Similarly, after learning that Jimi Hendrix was part Cherokee, it’s impossible not to think of the pain endured by American Indians on hearing his dissonant performance of The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock.
It’s a clever approach: tying a history that viewers already know to a hidden one they don’t, while humbly appealing to that kind of obsessive rock nerd tendency to make strings-on-a-pin-board connections. Link Wray begets The Who, The Stooges, Led Zeppelin, etc, who then beget their predecessors. Meanwhile Robbie Robertson is revolutionising folk and roots rock, and of course, pretty much everything stems from Charley Patton anyway. The breadth and sheer amount of people in the line-up of talking heads in Rumble acts in itself as a demonstration of how far this web of connection goes. It’s as refreshing that no one feels like they shouldn’t be there (no Bono!), as it is that no-one overstays their welcome – which is not a bad achievement for a roster deep enough to range from MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer to Tony Bennett. Thankfully, the musicians are supported by an appropriate mix of historians, geneticists, Indian music academics, and activists, helping prevent the affair from becoming a Rock ‘n’ Roll mutual appreciation society.
What makes this secret history even more powerful is the incredible sadness about it all. Unlike “black music” and “white music”, it seems the story of modern Indian music can only really be told relative to what we already know, instead of standing on its own accord. Unfortunately, the film never quite makes the most of this dichotomy. Performances, either by traditional Indian players, blues musicians, or rock artists, are never heard in full. The film gives us enough to make its point and then moves on. It’s a shame, as the few moments where the film lets the music speak for itself are magical. Take when a performance by a group of Tuscarora musicians in North Carolina cuts to black, only to fade up to an African American man in Mississippi playing early delta blues on the back of a train carriage. The similarities are unmistakable, and the uninterrupted pairing of the images and music communicates that far more deeply and intimately than someone just describing it in an interview. In most cases though, it’s clear that the filmmakers decided on delivering information over a more cinematic approach, leaving Rumble as a fascinating study, not a musical experience.
Regardless, the act unearthing alone make the film a more than worthwhile watch for rock, folk and blues devotees. It’s expected, yet still appropriate, that the film ends with footage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and Black Eyed Peas member Taboo’s ‘Stand Up / Stand N Rock’. This history of Indians and music is present tense, not past. Perhaps there was another reason for naming the film ‘Rumble’. Nothing sticks in your head like that song’s two-chord riff, and now, the history and plight of Native Americans sits there with it.