As a child, Fred Lincoln “Link” Wray, Jr. hid under a bed when the Ku Klux Klan came to his parents’ home in rural North Carolina. Racist groups often targeted the poor family of Native American Shawnee ancestry as the Wrays faced segregation in the American South, as did African Americans.
Wray finally took all that rage from his early years and crafted a 1958 instrumental hit “Rumble” using a distinct, distorted electric guitar sound that would influence generations of rock ‘n’ roll musicians from Iggy Pop, Neil Young , Pete Townshend from The Who and Slash from Guns N’ Roses. Although the song has no lyrics, it was banned in the 1950s for allegedly encouraging teenage violence.
Wray is one of many Native American musicians whose stories are featured in a new PBS Independent Lens documentary showing how Native Americans helped lay the foundations of rock, blues and jazz and shaped generations of musicians. “RUMBLE: Indians Who Shook the World” is set to air online and on most PBS stations Monday.
The film is the brainchild of Apache guitarist Stevie Salas who performed with Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. It was while touring with Stewart that Salas, a native of Oceanside, Calif., began to wonder if there had been other Native American rock musicians before him. “I was there with Rod Stewart and I was like, ‘Am I the only Indian who’s played Madison Garden (in New York)?'” Salas told The Associated Press. “So I started to investigate.”
Soon Salas, now 54, came across Wray, a musician he admired but had no idea he was Native American. Then he discovered Norman, Oklahoma-born Jesse Ed Davis, a guitarist of Kiowa and Comanche ancestry who played with John Lennon.
The hobby in search of Native American rock musicians eventually launched an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and then a film.
“People need to know Link Wray. People need to know Jesse Ed Davis,” Salas said.
But rock musicians aren’t the only popular musicians “RUMBLE” seeks to showcase. The documentary discusses blues pioneer Charley Patton, an early 20th-century Mississippi Delta guitarist of Choctaw and African-American ancestry. The film shows how some of Patton’s music preserved on raw vinyl recordings is similar to traditional American Indian songs. These traditions were fused with black music.
Legendary bluesman Howlin’ Wolf says he learned to play guitar from an “Indian” named Charley Patton.
The film also introduces viewers to largely forgotten jazz singer Mildred Bailey. A member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe in the Pacific Northwest, Bailey began signing ragtime in the 1920s and developed a swing style that fused traditional Native American vocals with jazz. She became known as “The Queen of Swing” performing in speakeasies and had such a unique style that young Italian-American aspiring singers Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra began copying her form.
“She was one of jazz’s great improvisers,” Bennett said in the film. “I was completely influenced by Mildred Bailey. She sang perfectly, for me.”
The film also explores the career of Robbie Robertson, a Canadian musician of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, who played with Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s before forming his own band called The Band.
“Be proud to be an Indian,” Robertson said, he was told as a child, “but be careful who you say it to.”
The documentary dives into the career of Davis, lead guitarist of the Taj Mahal, who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose. And that goes into the memorable career of Randy Castillo, the Albuquerque, New Mexico-born Isleta Pueblo drummer for Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe, whose life was cut short by cancer in 2002.
As Native American musicians move closer to the 21st century, the film shows that they have stopped hiding their identity and started celebrating it.
“It’s a missing chapter in this music history,” said co-director Catherine Bainbridge. “Native Americans were central to our popular music.”
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras