Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art and books that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture and STEM.
Our people were a part of the origin story of Blues and Jazz and Rock of American music, but we’re left out of the story consistently from the beginning. – Joy Harjo, Muscogee Creek Poet and Musician
Music is a staple in Indigenous cultures around the world. The widely known form of indigenous music in America is the powwow music; however, not all indigenous peoples ‘powwow’. Given that most things in North America are deeply rooted in indigenous culture, it should be no surprise that Native people have an influence on popular music.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a 2017 Canadian documentary film by directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, focuses on the ignored history of native influence on rock music. The film debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival where it won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling. Artist interviews highlight indigenous Blues, Jazz and Rock artists that had a huge impact on the music scene. All wondering why no one knew that Indians contributed so much to American music.
The most popular Blues and Jazz artists are African-American, and some of these artists have Native American roots. The history of slavery and oppression of people of color brought the African slaves and indigenous people together. Intermarriage and adoption blending the cultures, thus creating a foundation for Blues and Jazz.
Jazz and Blues artists such as Charlie Patton and Mildred Bailey grew up in blended communities that incorporated both Native American and African music. They also grew up at a time of high racial violence. Music was the only industry that welcomed black people. Bailey was the first woman to lead a big band and first woman to have her own radio program. She attributed her musical talent to Indian songs of her youth on the Coeur d’Alene reservation.
The documentary spends a lot of time on Shawnee member and guitarist Link Wray. His 1958 instrumental song, Rumble is the theme song of the documentary. Many of today’s guitar heroes attribute Wray as their inspiration for playing. Rumble was the first song to incorporate a distorted sound that helped separate rock music from other genres. The song was also banned from radio stations, fearing it would incite teenage gang violence. Listen below:
The doc features artist like Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, and Jesse Davis as some of the sought out musicians that impacted rock music in the 60s and 70s. Hendrix is probably the most popular artist featured in the documentary. His grandmother was half Cherokee and made sure he knew what that meant.
Robertson is also pretty popular. He played with Bob Dylan at a time when Dylan ‘plugged in.’ Even though many of Dylan’s fans were not happy with the electrical sounds of Robertson’s guitar, a lot of artists became fans. Robertson is still one of the most sought out guitar players in the industry.
The 70s was also the time of the American Indian Movement. Artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Peter LaFarge, John Trudell and Jesse Davis used their voices to sing about the issues that affected Native people of North America. Their radical message scared some people, especially the government. For example, the White House sent out letters to radio stations asking them to not play Sainte-Marie’s music. Despite being silenced, Sainte-Marie still plays today.
I didn’t realize the impact that indigenous people had on popular music. After watching Rumble, I can hear the drum, the shells, the call and response, etc. that make Native American music so unique. It makes me happy to see how proud some of the artists are of their heritage. And I get sad thinking of those who had to hide their Indian identity to make it in the industry.
Natives may be the original people of this nation, but we have always been silenced and erased from pop culture. Any references or imagery of the “American” Indian has been controlled by those writing the stories and making the movies. In the past decade or so, I’ve seen an emergence of artists who are taking back that imagery and sending out a message that we are still here and we can speak for ourselves.
If you love rock music and want to know more, Rumble is available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. Go to the Rumble Movie website for more details. Check out the trailer for Rumble below.
Aho for reading!