Friday, August 18, 2017

New Film Rumble Reclaims Indigenous Roots of American Music


-by Denise Sullivan

Forget everything you think you know or have been told about the birth of the blues and the histories of jazz and rock 'n' roll: Rumble-- The Indians Who Rocked The World has a different story to tell and by the sound of it, much of what's been handed down to us about North American music and its origins has been wrong.

The sound of the American South-- the rush of its waters, the song of the bird, the crack of thunder and the rain that follows-- informs the sound of Native American music, the root of all other American forms. Take the story of the Mississippi Delta's Charley Patton, widely acknowledged to be the father of the country blues. An existing photograph of him reveals he is likely a man of mixed race origins, though without clear proof, historians have remained perplexed and inconclusive in their findings. Rumble reveals through interviews, research, and recordings, that Patton's blood ties are to the Chocktaw nation and moreover, his connection to Native American music contributed to the rhythmic and vocal patterns of what we know as country blues. In the film, musician Pura Fé (Tuscarora) a/b's his technique with a turntable and her voice: “That's Indian music with a guitar,” she says. Calling on a kind of pre-blues origin of his sound, the assembled scholars and musicians, including modern day bluesmen Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart, go into deeper explanation of Patton's relationship to Dockery Plantation, the setting where he developed a showstopping style living among Black, Choctaw, and European farmworkers. He went on to pass on what he knew to other area musicians like Son House and visiting players like the young Roebuck Staples and Chester Burnette (who of course became Howlin' Wolf). So why is Patton's history generally painted so sketchily in the history books?

Pura Fé

Insufficient investigation into Native America's contribution to popular music is of course by design. Following the US government's attempts to eradicate the tribes and erase all vestiges of its culture, particularly following the slaughter at Wounded Knee, embracing and promoting Native ways became a dangerous pursuit. And yet, despite the genocide, Native musicians continued to innovate with sound.

Link Wray (Shawnee), with his heavy touch on the guitar strings, as on his signture song “Rumble,” became the inventor of rock's power chord. Iggy Pop, Slash, the Band's Robbie Robertson, MC5's Wayne Kramer, bluesman Taj Mahal, and Little Steven Van Zandt, all testify to the startling, life-changing power of Wray's sound. Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page owe their electric styles to him.

Monk Boudreaux and Cyril Neville unravel how Indian music came to New Orleans where indigineous people of the US and the indigenous people of Africa met and stirred it up. Poet Joy Harjo (Muscogee) explains how blues, rock, and jazz are tied up in these origins.Historian Erich Jarvis puts together how the slave trade resulted in African-Americans and Native people living in close proximities and why many Southern Indians lived their lives masked as Black. The lineage is matrilineal, usually a great grandmother on the mother's side, though none of this information is generally incorporated into our understanding of the origins of American music. Rumble lays down all of the prequel and more in the first 20 minutes of the film, and then it goes deeper:

Mildred Bailey, the first woman with her own radio show and to perform in front of a swing band was born on the Couer d'Alene reservation in Idaho; she was a profound influence on Tony Bennett and also informed the melodic styles of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The details are best left to be revealed by the excellent use of original recordings, film stock, and interviews collected by filmmakers Cathernine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana who left no Indian unsung in their effort to make their definitive documentary about Native Americans and popular music.

The film's producer, hard funk and rock guitarist, Stevie Salas (Apache), introduces Jimi Hendrix's story into the mix. Hendrix's ties to his grandmother's Cherokee ancestry extended not only in the way he looked and to his style, but in the touch with which he played (“I Hear My Train A'Comin'”). His sister Janie recalls Jimi's pride at his mixed cultural heritage (and the way his interpretation of The Star Spangled Banner nearly 50 years ago at Woodstock was a reflection of that pride). Derek Trucks calls Hendrix a national superhero for the power his multi-ethnicity brought him-- and in turn to his listeners. Trucks words serve as a critical reminder that a society's multiethnic pride is in fact its strength.

Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) and John Trudell (Santee Sioux) address the government's continued interference with their art and activism; Robbie Robertson recalls his journey from a partime reservation Indian to full tilt teenage rocker who toured the world with Bob Dylan. With the Band, Robertson forged a timeless vision of American electric music. Names lesser-known to casual listeners, from folksinger Peter LaFarge, Redbone's Pat Vegas, metal drummer Randy Castillo, and Jesse Ed Davis also get their due.

It was Taj Mahal who brought the guitarist best known to friends and fans as Jesse Ed into his band, and the Rolling Stones who brought the band to Europe, introducing Jesse Ed to the rock aristocracy for whom he became the sideman of choice. Davis is perhaps best known for his solo in Jackson Browne's hit, “Doctor My Eyes;" he later collaborated with Trudell on the acclaimed Graffitti Man, a groundbreaker in spoken-word recording in the '90s. A moving sequence pairs Salas and Trudell (who passed away in 2015 after the film's making) on a trip to New Mexico in memory of drummer Castillo, who died in 2002: It is in fact Castillo's story that underscores why the imprint Native Americans have left on popular music is singular: It is of the earth.

After viewing Rumble, it's unlikely you'll hear, sing, or play music the same way: Now we know not only was the land and air we breathe stolen, but the music we claim as our own was Native American too.

Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop and an occasional contributor to DWT! on arts, culture, and gentrification issues.

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