It’s Charley Patton’s singing and guitar playing that seal the deal.
A revered early bluesman from the Deep South, a mentor to Howlin’ Wolf and others, Patton had a percussive style of playing and a distinct manner of elongating and bending his vocals that helped shape the very course of the blues. How did he come up with these innovations? They were native to him. Literally.
Charley Patton was a Native American and he was emulating traditional Native American music. That’s right: Indians from the Deep South clearly influenced the blues. In fact, they may be said to have co-invented the blues, since a high number of blacks from the South actually had both African and Indian blood running through their veins. That’s why Indian garb is prominently featured in New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations.
These revelations are among the highlights of “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” a survey of how Indian music influenced American culture. The documentary rambles a bit, and eventually just starts running through profiles of musicians — early jazz singer Mildred Bailey, heavy metal drummer Randy Castillo, even Jimi Hendrix — who were either full- or part-blooded Native Americans.
But it clearly makes the case that Native American music insinuated itself into and indeed elevated what we commonly think of as American culture.
The film’s title refers to the hit instrumental from Indian guitar legend Link Wray, a song so raucous that it was actually banned in some places even though it had no lyrics. Wray single-handedly invented the power chord in 1958 and every band from The Who to The Sex Pistols to AC/DC followed his lead.
After focusing on Wray, the film tracks the history of Indian music’s integration into blues culture. Indian guitarists Robbie Robertson and Jesse Ed Davis get — and deserve — a lot of attention, and a parade of talking heads — Martin Scorsese, Wayne Kramer, Taj Mahal — weigh in on various musicians.
It’s all very convincing, if a bit repetitious. Still the musical excerpts — especially Wray’s — are great, and the history is something of an overdue revelation. Native Americans may have repeatedly and historically been oppressed in this country, but they’ve also helped shape it, right down to the music we hear every day.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
Indians Who Rocked the World”
Not rated / Detroit Film Theatre
Running time: 103 minutes