It’s taken a century of popular music to finally swing around and acknowledge the deeply ingrained influence of Native Americans. The beats, the rhythms, the imagery leave their fingerprints all over blues, jazz, folk, and rock.
PHOTO ABOVE of Tim Johnson and Taboo
In 2005, Brian Wright McLeod published the definitive book The Encyclopedia of Native Music that listed every known Native contribution to music from the wax cylinder to download streaming. That tome caught the attention of the curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian who organized an exhibit highlighting native musicians in popular culture called “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture”. The exhibit ran for 6 months in Washington DC then moved to NYC for a year where it was a blockbuster show, attended by thousands. I helped with the show, contributing my archives on folksinger Peter La Farge and appearing on a panel with Stevie Salas, Derek Miller, and McLeod in Washington.
The Executive Director of the Museum Tim Johnson connected with guitarist Stevie Salas who was in the exhibit and realized a feature documentary needed to be made.
After 4 years “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World” premiered to a sold out audience and big buzz at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 22nd. The film digs deep, mining a rich vein of often painful history when native song and dance such as the Ghost Dance which could get you killed, and did. Moving on through the ages and genres, the film presents major players of jazz – Mildred Bailey; blues – Charley Patton whose distinct scatlike singing style is called Indian music by Pura Fe in the film. Rocker Jimi Hendrix, Country rocker Robbie Robertson, Folk icon Buffy Saint Marie, Peter La Farge and more are engagingly profiled with rare film clips and music.
Looming large over the film is John Trudell, who gives his memories of how he connected with Jesse Ed Davis, the guitar slinger who played with George Harrison and Bob Dylan. “Indian Ed” Davis had a shooting star career cut short by his heroin addiction. There’s some great scenes of Davis performing, interviews with his widow, and a segment where Salas and Trudell play powwow drums and sing in his honor. Trudell died as the film was being finished and it’s dedicated to him.
Another rocker getting his due is heavy metal drummer Randy Castillo, a unique musician beloved by many for his powerhouse rhythms and ebullient personality. I worked with Randy at the Native American Music Awards in 1999 in Albuquerque where he presented an award with Laura Satterfield of Walela and hung out with Hank Williams III having a grand old time. Castillo was felled by cancer and scenes of his wild style drumming show what a great loss it is.
One great scene in the film takes place between Pat Vegas of Redbone and Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, who gives his thanks to Vegas for being out and proud in the 1970s by appearing in full native dress on the Midnight Special. Taboo was the guest DJ at the private party the night before the screening, thrilled to be representing hip hop and also to even be alive, as he has been fighting cancer for 2 years. He spun “Come and Get You Love” for all of us to dance to as a blizzard raged outside.
The film barely has time to cover all the great musicians, though the producers revealed that expanded docs for a series may be in the works.
The reviews raved:
“The influence of Native Americans on nearly a century of popular music is eloquently demonstrated in this engaging documentary. As Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana’s astoundingly rich and resonant music documentary makes abundantly clear, American popular music – and the history of rock and roll itself – wouldn’t be the same without the contributions of Native American performers.” – Hollywood Reporter.
“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” earns respect as much for its achievement as its ambition, while offering a celebratory examination of the often-underappreciated role played in the development of American popular music by singers, musicians, and songwriters of Native American ancestry. The film is structured more or less as a series of individual portraits of 10 significant artists, ranging from Delta blues great Charley Patton to iconic electric guitarist Jimi Hendrix (who was part Cherokee) to living legend Robbie Robertson. A few episodes are less satisfying than others, but only because they spotlight intriguing yet obscure figures that audiences likely would want to learn about in greater detail.” – Variety.
“Where in this day and age can you find things that are hidden?” said producer Bainbridge in a recent interview, whose other award-winning documentary Reel Injun explored the portrayal of Native Americans in movies and on TV. “That’s the secret sauce, this hidden gem of a story,” Bainbridge said of how “these incredible icons” inspired so many famous performers seen in the documentary.
Buffy Saint Marie points out that she was blacklisted in the 60s by the corporate regimes behind the media, namely the oil industry who didn’t want to hear natives singing about reservation lands being desecrated for drilling and mining.
As the people of the Dakotas – and beyond – gear up for another battle against the Dakota Pipeline, no doubt it will be music and musicians that brings awareness in the fight once again.