The recent documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World is a revelation, from Link Wray’s monumental influence on the landscape of music, to the legendary stars paying tribute to the songs and rhythms of indigenous cultures whose struggles were hidden from history for far too long. The line up of celebrities in this documentary is impressive: Stevie Van Zandt, Martin Scorsese, Taj Mahal, Georges Clinton, Tony Bennett, Taboo, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson and Steven Tyler, to name a few, including Iggy Pop, who owes his decision to become a musician to Link Wray’s infamous power cord.
Link Wray & His Wray Men, “Rumble” (1958)
In the not so distant past, Native Americans were depicted as “savages” in movies, killing and scalping people and generally being relegated to secondary players on the screen; meanwhile, Indigenous-themed movies were of little interest to the public and found few outlets for actual screenings. Many actors, artists and musicians, in fact, hid their origins for fear of persecution. Buffy Sainte-Marie, of Cree origin and an outspoken activist, was at one point blacklisted by American radio stations, which effectively, as she tells it, put her “out of business in the United States.”
It is no surprise, then, that world famous guitarist, Stevie Salas—from Apache origins and an executive producer on this documentary—chose Catherine Bainbridge as a director. Her documentary, Reel Injun, explored the portrayal and stereotypes of Native Americans in movies. Along with co-director Alfonso Maiorana, the team creates an admirable mix of concert and archival footage, interviews and re-creations that reveal the origin of popular music grounded deeply in Native American soils.
One of the more refreshing qualities of the documentary is that it steers clear of didactic storytelling and instead wholly embraces the spirit and sound of its subjects. The story unveils a complex tapestry of rhythms and melodies, interweaving historical events with their musical and cultural significance, including “Father of the Delta Blues” Charley Patton to influential jazz singer Mildred Bailey.
Mildred Bailey (from the Coeur d’Alene tribe), “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” (1937)
Rumble has already won major accolades, such as the Sundance Special Jury Prize in Masterful Storytelling for World Cinema, the Canadian Screen Award, and the Audience Award at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. A powerful tribute of to a rock pioneer who was snubbed twice from being inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame, Link Wray’s legacy is extensive and lasting, while his electrifying guitar cord keeps on rumbling for generations to come.
CYNTHIA BIRET: How did this story get started, and when did you realize the extent of the influence of Native American music?
STEVIE SALAS: There are two ways that this all started. First, I originally left San Diego and moved to Los Angeles in 1985 when I got out of high school, and I got a gig playing with Rod Stewart. I was playing around the world, such as Madison Square Garden, and I thought to myself, “surely I can’t be the only Native American guitar player playing rock and roll at this level, this high level.” And I started to do research, just for fun, just as a hobby; and what really hit me is that, for instance, not only were there some amazing Native American guitar players out there, but at the same time, the most famous rock musicians in the world that I had met and worked with actually worshipped these guys.
In the recording studio in 1994 – 1995 with the Rolling Stones, I asked Ronnie Wood a question about a guitar, and he said, “Do you know who gave me that guitar? Jesse Ed Davis gave me that guitar.” And he said Jesse Ed Davis’s name like he was talking about a superhero. That’s when I started to realize that there is this amazing Native American guitar player, unknown even to Native American people, and that the most famous musicians in the world worship him. And then came the idea that I have to do something with this.
Then it was the same thing with Link Wray. Later, in 2007 or 2008, I met Tim Johnson, who was the co-director of the Smithsonian, and I told him the story, and he said, “ok, let’s do an exhibit on it.” Tim and I created the exhibit with the Smithsonian, and it became hugely successful in Washington D.C. and New York City. After the exhibit was over, I set about going and meeting directors from different companies because I wanted to transform this into a movie. That’s how it all happened.
BIRET: When did you become aware of Link Wray, and when did you realize that he was Native American?
SALAS: I knew who Link Wray was, but I did not know he was Native American until about 2004. In 2003 I was opening for the Rolling Stones in Canada and I met a guy called Brian Wright-McLeod, a Native American author. He was writing a complete encyclopedia, a recorded history of Native American music, going all the way back to the 1900s. He started talking to me about Link Wray, and that’s when I found out that Wray was Native American. I had absolutely no idea. And then, get this — this is really crazy — a couple of years later I’m back stage at a Jeff Beck concert and I’m talking with Jeff Beck, and I find out that he is a huge fan of Link Wray! Not only he is completely influenced by Link Wray, but he is also a massive fan of Native American culture. On stage Jeff Beck wears Native American chokers, and he just loves Native American history. And when I told him that Link Wray was Native American, I assumed he already knew that, but he didn’t, and he freaked out!
BIRET: That’s amazing!
SALAS: Yeah, the whole thing was just amazing. I consider it an amazing journey.
BIRET: Talk to us about your association with John Trudell. He was such a powerful force. Did you know him before the film?
SALAS: I did know him before the film. We had originally met in Florida while we were at the same event, and we spent some time talking to each other. I had an incredible respect for him. We had talked about creating something together; as you know, music is my whole life. He and I talked about doing some spoken word with some music I was doing for one of my records, and I wanted to do this track while John Trudell did his words over it. We were trying to get it together, but we never got it together. I was here, he was somewhere else, and then he got sick. But Trudell and I would stay in touch.
John Trudell (Santee Sioux), “Bone Days” (2002)
You know the funny thing about Trudell is, I’ve been around some of the most famous people in the world, some of the most famous musicians in the world, and I don’t really get star struck. I was star struck with George Harrison, star struck with my manager Bill Graham, but most of the time I’ve never been star struck. But when I would get around Trudell and there would be a pile of Native American people trying to get at him, when he noticed me in the crowd, he would point at me and wave, and cut me though the crowd and we would go in the back and talk. He used to make me feel so special! He was just a powerful person. You know what I tell about Trudell, and I tell this to everybody, especially Native American people who worship him: what made me love and respect Trudell was the fact that he wasn’t perfect, that he wasn’t a saint. You know Trudell had a lot of faults, and that to me is what made him real. And he didn’t try to hide them. That is a complete human being to me because he was not afraid to say, look, I haven’t seen my kids in years. He was just who he was, and he was as real as can be. And I really respect that.
BIRET: What was his contribution to this film?
SALAS: We used him throughout the film for a lot of stuff because he was able to comment on the culture. I interviewed him several times. He commented about his own band with Jesse Ed Davis, and how her was there for Jesse Ed, towards the end of his life. So his contribution to the Jesse Ed story was very important. He was also important in the cultural story, and about what was going on historically. Because Rumble deals with a few Native American musicians who really influenced the world, but it’s also telling you how our country was developing and what was going on, and Trudell was incredibly smart and aware.
BIRET: You are bringing up important historical events: Wounded Knee, Standing Rock. The descriptions of these struggles flow naturally with the history of music without moralizing.
SALAS: My big fight for this film was this exact thing. I fought and I fought and I fought for this. I did not want to make a film that was negative. I didn’t want to make a film that made people feel bad. I didn’t want to make a film that you walked in and somebody clubbed you over the head with, “you took my music; you took my land, etc…” I wanted to make a film about heroes. And in the end, Catherine Bainbridge, our director, was really amazing in tying in the history to the music, so you felt the repression, you felt the pain, you felt the struggle without it being a bummer. You know, I didn’t want people to leave the film feeling guilty; I wanted them leaving the film feeling empowered. And Catherine and I struggled a lot on this, finding that balance, and in the end we really hit it. It was a fight, because, you know, it’s easy to use anger when people are angry about what took place in history. You can grab that big bullet of racism and use it, and it feels good to use it because you are so angry. But I did not want that. No, no, and no. These guys influenced the world in such a powerful way that many mainstream rock stars and celebrities were inspired by them.
BIRET: That was actually my next question. By bringing the celebrities in, you’re opening it up.
SALAS: I’m not just opening it up. There are always Native American people who are trying to get one Native American person in the mainstream, one Native American person to be successful so we have something to be proud of. And I always said that’s the wrong approach. People around the world love Native American culture. I want to bring the mainstream to Native America. So with this film, we let the most mainstream gigantic artists, filmmakers, and rock stars in the world tell the story of these Native Americans. Not just tell it, but praise it by saying, “look, this person influenced my whole world.” And I didn’t want this to come solely from an American musicologist. I wanted Steven Tyler to say it. I wanted Martin Scorsese to say it.
BIRET: Iggy Pop, Led Zeppelin, Pete Townshend…
SALAS: …we’re saying these Native Americans influenced pop music history. You need to tap people who were influenced by them.
BIRET: When the story covers New Orleans and the blues, and when Pura Fé starts singing, the film opens up to a rhythm common to all of us, connected to the earth. Was this rhythm something you deliberately threaded through the film, and is this why it ends at Standing Rock?
Pura Fé, in a short clip from Rumble, speaks to the prodigious influence of Chief Leon Locklear (Tuscarora) and his dobro.
SALAS: The ending is on the pipeline because here you go, while traveling back in history you see Native people on the front lines, singing, marching, and then you go right to today and they’re still out there marching. They are still out there fighting for the land. And it was important to show that the past isn’t over, it’s still going on. We were doing it then, we are doing it now.
And the rhythm thread, it’s funny that you said that, because as a guitar player I made my fame as a rhythm guitar player. I’ve been on the cover of every guitar magazine in the world, just about, and I’m known mainly as a guitar player who does rhythm guitar leads. Rhythm was my thing, and I get hired to this day to play rhythm guitar on great records, and my rhythm is a little unusual. I started thinking about that as a young man, and I started to realize that Robbie Robinson and those records by his band, sure it’s folk Americana kind of music and it’s very rhythmic, and Buffy Saint Marie is very rhythmic, and Jesse Ed Davis, he’s very rhythmic. He was very much into it. And then you have Elton John and John Lennon who also did “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night…” That’s when I started to realize that this rhythm is special. Taboo talked to me about the way he danced was neither black nor white, and he couldn’t figure it out until his grandmother showed him his own history and where he came from.
BIRET: That was such a powerful scene.
SALAS: There is something to that. You know, Native American people have a very different sense of rhythm that fits in with African music that also fits in with white music really nicely, right down the line.
BIRET: It’s just not something you can access from external sources. You have to find it deep inside yourself.
SALAS: It’s in our DNA
BIRET: And that rhythm helps unify people. It does not matter what color, race, age, or background people come from. They are all saying the same thing. That is what Link Wray did. But it’s not just him of course, and it goes back to their ancestors.
BIRET: Link Wray also had a profound impact on a variety of musical styles.
SALAS: Link Wray has a little bit of a different thing as well. Somehow Link Wray in 1957 was like the big man of rock and roll. He becomes sort of the first hard rock heavy metal guitar player by accident, influenced Jimmy Page and Pete Townsend.
Robert Gordon with Link Wray, “Lonesome Train” (1978)
And then, through that same music from 1957, 1958, 1959, he disappears for a while and that’s when Led Zeppelin and all these big bands come out; and then he is back again as a punk rock. After that, he is actually in NYC with Robert Gordon as punk rock started to explode in NYC in the late 70s, and every punk rock guy is going back to Link Ray’s records and now he is also sort of the king of punk rock guitar. So he becomes the king of rock guitar, of distorted guitar, you know, the roots of heavy metal, and he is also at the roots of punk rock. So this is a massive influence. And later on Robert Rodriguez starts to use him, he tells Tarantino about him, and then Link Wray becomes the image of cool when you meet him in the films sound tracks. Johnny Depp and everybody relate to Link Wray’s sound; it becomes part of a lifestyle. So he is super important when it come to modern rock and roll.
BIRET: The other important story point of the film is when Robbie Robertson shares the warning from his mother: “Be proud to be an Indian, but be careful whom you tell.” Did you have a similar upbringing?
SALAS: No I didn’t, but I tell you the main difference is that they are older than I am. I’ll explain it to you: Robbie was a Canadian native. He was born on Canadian land, and they were much more forgiving than in America. Robbie told me something funny one time, he said, “You know, you didn’t walk into an audition with a guitar saying, ‘Hi, I’m Joe Polanski. I’m Polish’. So you would never walk in and say, ‘Hi, I’m Robbie Robertson. I’m Mohawk Indian’. You don’t do that. You come in and play your music, right? And who you are as a human being is your personal business. But it would stop you, it could stop you, you could deal with problems. But he made his dreams come true.
Robbie Robertson’s blistering guitar on Ronnie Hawkins’ “Who Do You Love” (1959)
The voice of Robertson’s guitar, now fully developed and wholly iconic: “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” (1969)
For me it was a little different story. On my birth certificate it says that my mom and dad are white, which my mom and Dad are, you know, definitely not white. They are darker than me! And my parents told me that they put that on my birth certificate thinking it would give me a better chance in life. Just figured that it was wise to do so. And so, you go back in America and you think about 1900 to 1975, or whenever around the 70s. People did not want to be Native Americans. My parents just wanted to be Americans. And in the early days in New Mexico, which is where my parents migrated to coming from Wyoming, if you were a Native American in the early 1900s you were going to get shipped away to a reservation and put on a trail of tears, or be put somewhere you did not want to be, and your family would be broken. But if you were a Mexican, you were allowed to stay on a small farm and you could farm and keep your family together, so everybody became Spanish, Mexican, Hispanic, or Castilian, and no one was an Indian. So you were born and brought up to be told your whole life, “you are a Mexican, you are a Mexican; we are from Mexican culture.” Because your parents said that to you, you didn’t even know you were an Indian. Taboo didn’t even know he was a Native American, his parents never told him. It was his grandmother who told him. But I was always aware of it. My Dad told me, and my mother side of the family, her own brothers always told us that we were Native Americans.
BIRET: Did this help you assume your identity and connect with your roots?
SALAS: I knew my whole life. It wasn’t just that I was Native; it was more like, how cool, I’m Native American, you know. But it wasn’t like a selling point.
BIRET: Of course, I was referring to how it made you feel on the inside.
SALAS: In fact, my own mother didn’t really know it, but her brother did. We would talk about it, and my mom would laugh. My mother’s mother, my grandmother wouldn’t talk about it, and would almost be in denial, because for her and for her parents, Native American people were called savages. And they would argue, “I’m not a savage, you know. I’m a Mexican person. I’m not a savage.” And it was a bad thing to be a Native American. Most people didn’t know that they were actually American Indians.
BIRET: Native Americans were usually portrayed in films as savages, attacking, killing, and all these horrible things. Now, let’s talk about filmmaking challenges—I’m sure they were many.
SALAS: A million challenges, but the biggest challenge for me was actually when we sold the film. I originally pitched the film at Hot Docs five years ago, and every single network said yes. We actually presold the film before we even shot a roll of film, which was unheard of. Then Christina Fon, executive producer of this film and our partner at Rezolution, spent a lot of energy trying to figure out how to put the network deal together, because not every network would work with another network due to territory limits and so on. The other challenge was that I wanted every super star I could get in the film, and when you deal with super stars you have to deal with their schedules, and that took a lot of time.
BIRET: There is a large amount of information condensed into this documentary. Have you considered turning it into a docu-series?
SALAS: We’re talking about it. We are now doing a movie for PBS. We may turn it into a docu-series. It’s funny you should say that. Edward James Olmos, the actor, wants to host and narrate it. And we were talking about it yesterday, Edward and I. He has been a real supporter since he first saw the film in Los Angeles.
BIRET: What are your final thoughts about this documentary?
SALAS: The only thing people need to do is just to watch the film. You don’t have to like music. You don’t have to like Indians. Just watch the film, and learn the history of our country, because Canada and North America have a very detailed history that hasn’t been told, and Rumble tapped into that.
BIRET: Are you planning some type of outreach in schools?
SALAS: Rumble has turned into a school curriculum already. I was just speaking at Notre Dame University last week. A company called Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, which is owned by Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt), turned Rumble into a school curriculum. It’s free, and it’s offered to schools all around the country.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World can be streamed on Amazon
Link Wray at Winterland, 1974. The full concert.