Cue the intro to Rumble, a mesmeric late-fifties rock instrumental later used in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction: "Dun-dun-DUN"
At a dance in 1957 in Fredericksburg, Va., guitarist Link Wray and his band received a song request from the sock-hoppers. The kids wanted to dance to The Stroll, a song that had inspired a rock 'n' roll line dance that was all the rage at the time.
Wray didn't know the song. But the band knew the right beat, to which Wray improvised a simple, languid barre-chord sequence in the key of D. The three-chord pattern was seductive, hypnotic and wild, with a fuzzed-out distorted tone. According to Wray, the kids "went ape" over it.
Wray later recorded his improvised instrumental guitar vamp. The song was Rumble, and its reverberations shook the music world. Its gritty riff was the connection from the blues players of the past to the rock guitarists of the future – Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Rolling Stone said Rumble "sounded like an invitation to a knife fight." Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt said it was the "theme song for juvenile delinquency." And Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant sang, "it's been a long time since we did The Stroll."
The story of Rumble and the Shawnee-blooded Wray is part of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a compelling and necessary survey of pioneering Native American musicians, from Montreal-based Rezolution Pictures. Biographies are sketched and historical context is given. In the end, the story is one not only of rock- and pop-culture history, but of human persistence and indigenous contributions that have been historically (and often intentionally) overlooked.
"Pay the respect that is due," says music writer David Fricke, one of the documentary's talking heads. "Don't break it apart."
Director Catherine Bainbridge, whose credits include the co-direction of 2009's Reel Injun (about Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans) keeps it together. With the help of a few ethno-musicologist narrators, viewers are exposed to the atrocities of a cultural genocide by the U.S. government. Native singers and dancers were incarcerated or denied rations. In 1890, "ghost dancers" were slaughtered.
Years later, Rumble became the only instrumental song ever banned from radio, its incitement to violence being perceived as a threat to society. The film rightly gives much attention to the Cree-Canadian folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, who discusses the banning of her song Universal Soldier in the early 1960s, and how things have changed since then and how things have not.
"The big racket has been around for a long time, and anybody who really wants to be effective learns not how to fight it, because they'll outgun you, but how to work around it, through it – even heal it up," she says at one point, over footage of recent Native American protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline site in North Dakota and a performance of her singing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
"We carry a medicine in us," continues the singer-activist. "Especially the medicine of the arts."
After the opening segment on Wray, the film traces a lineage of pre-rock trailblazers, starting with the Choctaw/African-American blues guitarist Charley Patton and pre-war jazz vocalist Mildred Bailey – "She was one of the great improvisers of jazz," says Tony Bennett – from the Coeur d'Alene tribe. Their nuances are based in their Native American heritage, it is contended.
Lesser-known figures include the great session guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who receives high praise from blues great Taj Mahal and Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler. Davis, whose tasteful guitar solo graces Jackson Browne's soft-rock classic Doctor My Eyes, was "never the same" after a tour with the Faces in 1975. The road show with high-life enthusiasts Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart left him with a heroin addiction he never recovered from.
The film gives heavy screen time to the half-Mohawk Robbie Robertson, a good talker who learned his music and rough-and-ready guitar chops not only on Toronto's Yonge Street but on the Six Nations Reserve, southwest of the city, where he was raised. Talking about Wray's Rumble, the seminal roots-rock songwriter and guitarist with The Band says the song "changed everything."
It's a curious quote from Robertson, whose 2013 book, Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World, gives chapters to 27 musicians but not one word on Wray.
But, then, this film is about giving credit where previously neglected credit is due. "You wouldn't let us talk about it before," Robertson says at the end of the doc. "But now I'm going to talk about it real loud."
No volume is too much at this point.