ACT Human Rights Festival: ‘Rumble’ recognizes Native American contributions to rock and roll

Matt Smith

The ACT Human Rights Film Festival went out with a “Rumble.”

The last film of the festival, “Rumble,” examines American culture, specifically the role of Native Americans in defining rock and roll. As the subtitle says, it’s about “the Indians who rocked the world.”


Linke Wray, a subject of the film, was born to Shawnee parents in North Carolina. “Rumble” presents his Native American musical upbringing as influential in his trend-setting style. Media icons from Martin Scorsese to Robbie Robertson point to Wray’s distorted, grating power chords as the source of much of the emotion in the rock and roll music. 

Co-Director Alfonso Maiorana said at a Q&A session after the showing that the film’s claim, that Native American people and musical traditions had a profound effect on rock and roll, appears dubious at first. Maiorana and Director Catherine Bainbridge worked hard to get a vast cast of big names to help prove this fact, a fact they already knew.

“The good thing about ‘Rumble’ so far: The film, I think, is going to be around a lot longer than we are,” Maiorana said.

A group fo three people answer questions from the crowd
Moderator Tyrone Smith, executive producer Stevie Salas and producer Christina Fon listen to the last audience question during their panel. Their movie has been nominated for and won awards across the board, from a Sundance Film Festival award to several international nominations. (Josh Schroeder | Collegian)

Musician Jesse Ed Davis first found recognition with The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus show before quickly becoming a favorite of all the greats of his time. Davis’ father was Comanche and his mother was Kiowa. Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Eric Clapton all had Davis playing with them at some point. As revered as he was in the business, he is completely unheard of on the audience’s side. 

As “Rumble” shows, this was the story for many great Native American musicians. For those who did gain public recognition, their Native heritage was hidden from view. 

The documentary presents Jimi Hendrix’s Cherokee grandmother as introducing him to traditional singing styles. Mildred Bailey, the sound of ’20s flapper jazz and prohibition speakeasies, intoned her voice with distinctively Native American octave drifting. 

Many other huge rock and roll influences are presented as being influenced by Native American traditions, like blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, delta blues pioneer Charlie Patton and many others. Backing up these connections are Steven Tyler, Tony Bennett, Slash, George Clinton and Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas. 

The good thing about ‘Rumble’ so far: the film, I think, is going to be around a lot longer than we are.”

-Co-director of “Rumble,” Alfonso Maiorana

One of the film’s strongest arguments is one that stretches the farthest back. Rock and roll is derived from the blues, which itself is derived from West African spiritual music. But as Native Americans and Africans shared their music on slave plantations, the blues became a combination of both traditions from the start. 

Encompassing all these revelations and insights into the DNA of American music demonstrates the vast history of oppression faced by Native Americans and their culture. In 1890, a U.S. Cavalry Regiment killed up to 300 Lakota performing a traditional dance in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Piapot singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie found herself blacklisted after advocating for indigenous rights. 

For more information on the film visit

For too long the contribution of Native American music been overlooked and discarded. As it begins to be accepted into history curriculums around the country, “Rumble” is set to change that.                 


Matthew Smith can be reached at or on Twitter @latvatalo