How Native Americans 'Rocked the World'

A new PBS documentary aims to set the record straight
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 19, 2019 1:40 PM CST
How Native Americans Helped Make Rock and Blues
In this Jan. 1, 1944 file photo, Mildred Bailey, a jazz singer of the Coeur d'Alene American Indian tribe, performs on her musical radio program "Mildred Bailey and Company" in New York City.   (AP Photo, File)

As a child, Fred Lincoln "Link" Wray Jr. hid under a bed when the Ku Klux Klan came to his parents' home in rural North Carolina. Racist groups often targeted the poor family of Shawnee Native American ancestry as the Wrays endured segregation in the American South just like African-Americans. Wray eventually took all that rage of his early years and crafted a 1958 instrumental hit "Rumble" using a distinct, distorted electric guitar sound that would influence rock 'n' roll musicians from Iggy Pop and Neil Young to Pete Townshend of The Who and Slash of Guns N' Roses. Though the song had no lyrics, it was banned in the 1950s for allegedly encouraging teen violence. Wray is one of many Native American musicians whose stories are featured in a new PBS Independent Lens documentary showing how Native Americans helped lay the foundations to rock, blues and jazz and shaped generations of musicians, the AP reports.

RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World is set to air online and on most PBS stations Monday. The film is the brainchild of Apache guitarist Stevie Salas, who has performed with the likes of Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. But rock musicians aren't the only popular performers RUMBLE seeks to highlight. The documentary touches on blues pioneer Charley Patton, an early 20th Century Mississippi Delta guitarist of Choctaw and African-American ancestry. The film also introduces viewers to the largely forgotten jazz vocalist Mildred Bailey. A member of the Coeur d'Alene tribe in the Pacific Northwest, Bailey began singing ragtime in the 1920s and developed a swing style that blended traditional Native American vocals with jazz. "She was one of the great improvisers of jazz," Tony Bennett says in the film. "I was completely influenced by Mildred Bailey. She sang perfect, for me."
(More music stories.)

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