Link Wray’s 1958 instrumental “Rumble” is a seminal work of American popular music, one of those songs that’s so fundamental that even if you don’t think you know it, trust me, you do. “Rumble” was one of the first rock ’n’ roll songs to feature guitar distortion, as well as one of the first to feature what would come to be known as “power chords,” two qualities roughly akin to being one of the first paintings to feature paint. It hit No. 16 on the Billboard charts despite being banned from many radio stations, a stunning achievement for a song that doesn’t even have lyrics. The late 1950s were a messy, unruly time for rock ’n’ roll: For every great record there were countless retreads and novelty songs to sift through, as an industry that didn’t understand the music itched to cash in before it inevitably fizzled out. Every now and then, though, a thunderbolt broke through, and one can only imagine what it was like hearing “Rumble” for the first time—Jimmy Page and Iggy Pop are just two musicians who’ve described hearing the song as a genuinely life-changing experience.
Hardly anyone who heard “Rumble” in 1958 would have known that its creator was Native American. Frederick Lincoln “Link” Wray Jr. was born in North Carolina in 1929 to Shawnee parents. Twelve years after his death in 2005, “Rumble” is now the namesake of a rollicking if somewhat uneven documentary film about the history of Native American contributions to popular music. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, tackles a long, illustrious, and sorely undertold story, and as such offers some much-needed shading to a history that’s still too often framed in stark polarities of black and white.
The music of the United States has been marked by the sounds and contributions of its indigenous people for as long as that music can be said to have existed. The earliest European colonists thrilled and trembled at the American music they heard upon their arrival. In the late 19th century, white American art music composers sought to mine Native American sources in what came to be known as the “Indianist” movement. And some of the earliest ethnographic uses of sound recording were deployed to record Native American songs, dances, chants, and rituals, a practice so widespread that illustrations of Indian people were sometimes used in advertisements for phonographs.
Rumble takes place in the aftermath of this history, although the last example is briefly referred to in a prologue at the beginning of the film. Featuring an incredible array of interviews with Indian and non-Indian luminaries such as the Band’s Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), Redbone’s Pat Vegas (Shoshone), Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree), George Clinton, Steven Tyler, Martin Scorsese, and Cyril and Ivan Neville, Rumble often feels like at least two movies in one. The first is an attempt to pinpoint the various and far-flung Native American tributaries that have flowed into American popular music; the second is an attempt to shed light on individual musicians of Native American descent whose contributions to that music have been sorely overlooked or misunderstood. It is more successful in the latter configuration than in the former, although this is perhaps because the former is far too complex and elusive a topic for a single film.
The individual artists that Rumble highlights are enormously consequential to American music, starting of course with Link Wray himself. There’s Mildred Bailey, who grew up on a Coeur D’Alene reservation in Idaho and became one of the greatest and most important vocalists in prewar American jazz. (Tony Bennett is featured in the film, proclaiming Bailey as one of his formative vocal influences.) There’s Jesse Ed Davis, born in Oklahoma to a Comanche father and Kiowa mother, who would go on to become one of the most sought-after session guitarists of his generation, playing with John Lennon, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jackson Browne. These figures are more than worthy of full documentaries entirely to themselves. Another artist featured in the film, Delta blues pioneer Charley Patton, whose grandmother was thought to be Cherokee, is quite simply one of the most important musicians of the 20th century and probably worthy of at least a hundred such films.
Patton’s segment also illustrates some of the film’s shortcomings, particularly its quixotic and quasi-musicological quest to uncover the Native American “roots” of modern popular music. This type of sleuthing is always tricky and rarely all that satisfying, and the film’s lengthy theorization that the melismatic style of Patton’s singing and the intricate rhythms of his guitar playing are direct retentions of his Cherokee ancestry feels flimsy at best. Melisma and polyrhythms are common to many musical traditions, including those of the black American South, where Patton spent his life as an itinerant musician under the constant threat of Jim Crow–era racial violence. The film doesn’t mention the prominence of such musical characteristics in West African traditions, nor does it mention Patton’s well-established influences and mentors such as Henry Sloan and Willie Brown, both of whom were black. Neglecting this context runs the risk of suggesting that Patton’s musical style was acquired through something like biological transmission—an old-fashioned notion, indeed—as well as potentially muddying the still-charged question of whom the black American blues tradition rightly “belongs” to. (My answer remains black Americans.)
Of course, there was a tremendous amount of musical and cultural overlap between black American communities and Native American communities in the American South, particularly during slavery, when Native communities (and later, reservations) often served as harbor for fugitive enslaved people. Rumble addresses this at some length, but it still feels like a shame that the film doesn’t dwell in it more, or in the extraordinarily polyglot story of American popular music more generally. One can certainly do justice to the enormous role of Native American musicians in American music by telling the stories of those individual musicians and their various unique circumstances, rather than getting caught up in dubious retention theories. American popular music’s source material is a beautiful mess that’s almost always impossible to disentangle, with contributions from Africans, Europeans, Native Americans, Cubans, Mexicans, Jamaicans, Minnesotans, Chicagoans, and countless other self-defined peoples and cultures.
Rumble is best when it lets this very impossibility take center stage. Toward the film’s end we get the story of the Native American rock and pop band Redbone, who had a Top 5 Billboard hit in 1974 with “Come and Get Your Love.” It’s a killer song, with an ebullient melody, pristine vocal harmonies, and a dancing, bubbling rhythm section. It wouldn’t be out of place on an album from the same period by Earth, Wind & Fire, or the Bee Gees, or Big Star. The movie gives us footage of the band’s performance on the television show Midnight Special, which the band begins by conducting a Native American dance ritual in full traditional dress before effortlessly segueing into a note-perfect live performance of “Come and Get Your Love.” And at that moment it feels like something much bigger than the film itself comes entirely together: four men on a stage, being musicians, being Indians, being Americans, playing rock ’n’ roll.