“In 1907 the United States government commissioned ethnologists to record Native musicians across America, convinced their cultures and music would not survive.”
Thankfully, not only is this not true, but Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana have delivered an eye-opening documentary that finally does justice to our indigenous people and our music history.
The film kicks off with Shawnee Indian, Link Wray, and his iconic power chord from the 1958 single Rumble; an accidental song that sprung from a request at a live gig he didn’t know, so he improvised. (Gen Xer’s will likely remember this song for playing during a scene at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction.) What follows is a musical chronology that moves along the American music spectrum. “Pre-blues” introduces us to “Grandfather of the Delta Blues” Charley Patton whose guitar playing and lyrical style combined with rhythmic drumming on his guitar is as Native American Indian as it gets. Jazz? Meet Mildred Bailey. With ancestors from Coeur d’Alene Reservation, Idaho, Bailey is credited with singing that shaped all jazz singers who followed, including Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. Folk music? Meet Peter La Farge, the first folk singer signed to Columbia Records. Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) was also a passionate and powerful folk singer and activist who wrote Universal Soldier and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1983 for Up Where We Belong. Rock-n-roll is a long list including but not limited to Jimi Hindrex (Cherokee), Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), Howlin’ Wolf (Choctaw), Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa), John Trudell (Santee Dakota), Stevie Salas (Apache) and iconic Ozzy drummer Randy Castillo (Apache). My personal favorite is funk/rock group Redbone (Shoshone) with the always fun and infectious Come and Get Your Love.
It’s at turns wonderful and infuriating. The efforts of the U.S. government to suppress indigenous voices is ongoing. From the slaughter of over 300 men, women and children in 1890 participating in singing and dancing at Wounded Knee to banning Johnny Cash’s album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian in 1964 to Standing Rock’s protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline; it’s clear that Native Americans are still the most underrepresented Americans today.
This is a beautiful film that probably just scratches the surface, but it’s refreshing to see these people honored by industry greats. Interviews include George Clinton, Martin Scorsese, Steven Van Zandt, Pura Fé, Joy Harjo, Taj Mahal, Ivan Neville, Dan Auerbach, Iggy Pop, Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, Steven Tyler and more, and features haunting arrangements by Native American women’s a cappella group, Ulali. Tony Hawkins has a brief moment at the opening talking about the influence of Link Wray on rock-n-roll (RIP).
The film ends with a conversation between Black Eye Peas’ Taboo (Shoshone) and Redbone’s Pat Vegas bonding over shared history; a kind of passing the torch to the younger generation to keep the momentum going, to keep the music playing.
The film is wonderful and well worth the watch, especially if you’re a music lover and especially if you love music history!