'Rumble' Celebrates Rock 'N' Roll's Native American Roots

Aug 6, 2017
Originally published on August 6, 2017 12:33 pm

In 1958, the guitar riff known as "Rumble" shocked audiences. Its use of distortion and bass made it sound dangerous and transgressive to audiences at the time — and its influence is still heard today. Behind that song was a Native American musician named Link Wray, who went on to inspire legions of rock 'n' roll greats. He's featured in a new documentary called Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, which aims to finally give Native American musicians their due.

Another rock legend featured in the film is Stevie Salas, who has played with Justin Timberlake, Rod Stewart, George Clinton, Mick Jagger and others. He also helped curate an exhibition about Native Americans in rock 'n' roll at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and served as Rumble's executive producer.

For Salas, the project of spotlighting Native American musicians is personal: He's Apache, and when he was starting out in rock, he saw little visibility for other Native American musicians.

"[Music] really started as hobby when I got out of high school in San Diego," he says. "I moved to L.A., and I was discovered by George Clinton and started to work with him and Bootsy Collins and Was (Not Was). Then I got this huge gig with Rod Stewart — that's when, all of a sudden, I was playing arenas and Madison Square Garden and all these places. I just started looking around and wondering — to me, I looked like everybody else. But then I realized I didn't, and I just started to wonder: Were there any other people out there doing what I was doing that were like me? And at first, it really seemed like there weren't, but as I started to talk to people and gig, I realized there were a bunch."

In a conversation with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Salas explains what it was like to research rock 'n' roll's Native American heritage. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for highlights.


Interview Highlights

On Jimi Hendrix's Native American identity

When I started at the Smithsonian with Tim [Johnson], to do the exhibit on this, Janie Hendrix — Jimi's sister — she goes, "Jimi has to be in this. Because my grandmother was Cherokee. It was super important to him." But then when we went to make the film later on with Rezolution Pictures, PBS — who was one of our distributors with Independent Lens — was like, "Come on. You guys expect me to believe this? Jimi Hendrix?" And I secretly arranged for Janie Hendrix to call my cellphone while we were having this discussion. She called me, and I go [to PBS], "Well, you know what? Why don't you ask Jimi's sister, personally?" And she just let him have it. And then PBS did the deal with us — and that's how we got the film going, in a lot of ways.

On the shared history between African-American music and Native American music

I always assumed the Delta blues was a black art form, because that's what I was always taught. But as a kid, I was always taught that Columbus discovered America too. What we realized was happening was: When you watch Rumble, and you see the development of North America, music was just a by-product of what was going on with the repressed people. So you had the slaves and you had the Native Americans — all were outcasts.

On balancing anger and optimism in the film

I found really hard with my producer-partners, and the directors who I worked with, because there's a lot of anger there. In the corner of the room, you have this big blob of nothingness called racism that you just want to reach for and use. And it's so easy to use, and it's so satisfying to use, because you're so angry. But I said, "No. We're making a film about heroes. We're making a film about people who did incredible things, against incredible odds, and it should inspire people." I didn't want to say, "We got screwed again! You stole our land, you stole our music." I didn't want that. Neither did a lot of my Native American friends who are working towards really feeling great and doing greater things in life. We didn't want to go backwards. We wanted to go forwards with this, and I'm really proud that we were able to do that.

You can hear songs from the artists featured in Rumble in the Spotify playlist below, created by Studio 360.

Web editor Marissa Lorusso contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINK WRAY'S "RUMBLE")

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is the riff that is known as rumble. Instantly recognizable, it was named rumble because of its use of distortion and bass to create a sound that, in 1958, seemed dangerous and transgressive. The man behind that song was a musician named Link Wray who went on to inspire legions of rock 'n' roll greats. Wray was Native American. And a new documentary finally gives him and other Native American musicians their due. It's called "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World." And another rock legend featured in the film is Stevie Salas, who is also the documentary's executive producer. Salas has played with Justin Timberlake, Rod Stewart and George Clinton and on and on. And he joins us from San Diego and the studios of KPBS to talk about this film, which was recognized at the Sundance Film Festival. Welcome to the program.

STEVIE SALAS: Hey, thanks for having me. And, you know, you left out my favorite - my favorite guy I ever played - well, George Clinton - but Mick Jagger.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mick Jagger. Come on. You're so right. I'm so sorry to have left that out. There's so many. There's so many - too many to say.

(LAUGHTER)

SALAS: And I wouldn't call myself a legend. My son looked at me right now like, what?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should mention you brought a guest. Tell your son to say hi.

SALAS: Say hello.

SHANE: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi.

SALAS: That's my son Shane, a nice, young Apache Indian. We're on vacation right now at the beach. And I didn't want to fly to New York. So it was nice of you to let me do it this way. Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, thank you both for joining us. As you just mentioned, you're Apache. So this project was personal for you.

SALAS: It really started as a hobby. When I got out of high school in San Diego, Calif., I moved to LA and got - was discovered by George Clinton and started to work with him and Was (Not Was). And then I got this huge gig with Rod Stewart. And that's when, all of a sudden, I was playing, you know, arenas in Madison Square Garden and all these places. And I just started looking around, wondering - to me, I looked like everybody else. But then I realized I didn't. And I just started to wonder, was there any other people out there doing what I was doing that were like me? And at first, it seemed like there weren't. And then as I started to talk to people and dig, I realized there were a bunch.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You didn't know before that.

SALAS: You know, not really because nobody wanted to go around telling that they're Native American. And my grandparents and my great-grandparents certainly didn't want to be Native American because only bad things were happening to Native American people in the early 1900s. And even Robbie Robertson said something really funny to me once. He goes, you know, Stevie, you just didn't walk in a room and say, hi, I'm Bob Polanski (ph). I'm Polish. You know, you just didn't walk in and say, I'm Robbie Robertson. I'm a Mohawk Indian. You just didn't do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think we should list some of the Native American artists we hear about in the film, Charley Patton, Jimi Hendrix, the group Redbone and Mildred Bailey, the American jazz singer, as well as, you know, so many other less well-known artists, many of whom lent their songs and rhythms to enormously influential musicians like Bob Dylan.

SALAS: Well, you know, you have Peter La Farge. Well, there's an argument with Peter Lafarge 'cause his parents claim that's not true. And his sister claims it is true or something like that. It was - there was a bit of controversy. And we were doing the Smithsonian exhibit first based on the subject, Tim Johnson and I - we had the Smithsonian vet all these out 'cause we wanted to make sure that we were really careful about this information because we were rewriting history, pretty much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you basically did do some genealogy to figure out if these people actually were Native American?

SALAS: Oh, you had to really dig, right? Like, for instance, Hendrix...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE HAZE")

JIMI HENDRIX: (Playing guitar).

SALAS: When I started at the Smithsonian with Tim to do the exhibit on this, Janie Hendrix, Jimi's sister - she goes, Jimi has to be in this, you know, because my grandmother was Cherokee, and it was super important to him. And blah, blah, blah. But then when we went to make the film later on with Resolution Pictures, PBS, who was one of our distributors, you know, with "Independent Lens" - the head of PBS was like, come on. You guys expect me to believe this. Jimi Hendrix? And I secretly arranged for Janie Hendrix to call my cell phone while we were having this discussion. And she called me. And I go, you know what? Why don't you ask Jimmy's sister personally? And then she just let him have it. And he was like, OK, OK, OK. And then PBS did the deal with us. And that's, you know, how we got the film going in a lot of ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So that's really interesting that you're talking about Jimi Hendrix because, of course, most people think of him, and they think of him as African-American - that that was a core part of his identity. And something that's so fascinating about this documentary in particular is how you detail the combined history of African-American music and Native American music and why they feed into and out of each other, which is something that is incredible.

SALAS: It even blows my mind because what's really going on is - for instance, I always assumed the Delta blues was a black art form because that's what I was always taught. But, you know, as a kid, I was always taught that Columbus discovered America, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

SALAS: So, you know, what we realized was happening was when you watch "Rumble," and you see the development of North America, music is just a byproduct of what was going on with the repressed people. So you had the slaves, and you had the Native Americans - all were outcasts. And Janie Hendrix says Jimi was really proud of his African-American heritage. He was proud of his Native American heritage. And then she says, he was proud of his Scottish heritage. And to me, that was super important because what she was talking about was the development of this country - Canada and North America - with all the different people coming together from all over the melting pot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to listen to a bit of the documentary. Here's Native American musician Pura Fe listening to some of Charlie Patton in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD")

PURA FE: (Vocalizing). That's Indian music with a guitar, you know (laughter)?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What she's talking about there is listening to Charlie Patton and listening to the blues and saying, that's Native American music. They come from the same place.

SALAS: I was a little nervous about that scene because I wanted to make sure when I was making the film that I didn't want to do a thing that said, this is ours. And we - you took this from us. And we're victims - and none of that. And in that one scene, Pura Fe is absolutely right. But at the same time, it's also African-Americans - it's personal to them, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course.

SALAS: And, really, what you're hearing is a blend of the two, I believe. But it's true. It's very - we had something to do with it. And before, no one would ever have thought that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So much of what we see about Native Americans is about what they've lost. But this is about what they've given.

SALAS: Yeah. I fought really hard with my producer partners and the directors who I worked with because, you know, most people - there's a lot of anger there. And in the corner of the room, you have that big blob of nothingness there called racism that you just want to reach for and use. And it's so easy to use, and it's satisfying to use it because you're so angry. But I kept saying, no, we're making a film about heroes. We're making a film about people who did incredible things against incredible odds. And it should inspire people. I didn't want to say, you know, we got screwed again. You stole our land. You stole our music. I didn't want that. Neither did a lot of my Native American friends who are working towards really feeling great and doing greater things in life. And we didn't want to go backwards. We wanted to go forwards with this. And I'm really proud that we were able to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you shown the film to your son? Shane, have you seen the film?

SHANE: No.

SALAS: He's going to, though. I've been traveling all over the world doing this thing. And he's waiting patiently. And when we open in Austin, Texas, he will be there with bells on, ready to rock.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stevie Salas is the executive producer of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World." Thank you so much, both of you, for joining us.

SALAS: Thank you.

SHANE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINK WRAY'S "HAND CLAPPER")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World" is playing in New York, Toronto and Vancouver and opens nationwide August 25. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.