July 29, 2021

Rock ‘n’ roll’s debt to North American Indians | Culture

Taj Mahal and Jesee Ed Davis, in a Rumble film

When Bob Dylan was first plugged into an amplifier in 1965, the guitarist chosen to bust the dogmas of folk was named Robbie Robertson, a Mohawk musician who grew up on an Indian reservation in Ontario. Charlie Patton, one of the fathers of the Mississippi Delta blues, was half black, half Choctaw. Link Wray, the creator of that guitar buzz called distortion, crawled under the bed as a kid every time he heard KKK coming because he had Shawnee blood. Lennon and Clapton adored Jesee Ed Davis, a prodigious Seminole guitarist, who they took on tour until he died of an overdose in the eighties. Jimi Hendrix wore feathers and Cherokee jackets in tribute to his grandmother. Bennett and Sinatra grew up listening to Mildred Bailey, brought up by the songs of her skitswish community.

The debt of rock ‘n’ roll – in a broad sense, blues, swing, jazz – is much deeper than the plunder of black culture. The greatness of American music also draws from the underground channels of native indigenous traditions that survived, marginalized in reservations, the extermination of white, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon colonization.

The documentary Rumble, The indians who rocked the world, a Canadian production led by Steve Salas, an Apache rocker who came to play with Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, digs carefully into this forgotten footprint. “We wanted to make a story of heroes, not victims,” ​​he commented during the recent screening of the film at the Guanajuato Film Festival. “We did incredible things.”

“All the music in the country comes from the south and is influenced by the land, the air, the birds and us,” says Pura Fe, a Taino singer, from a reservation in North Carolina. In another scene, a blues litany plays on a record player and Pura Fe responds: “the rhythm, the voice, is indigenous music but made with a guitar.”

The song, lilting, circular, hypnotic, is by Charlie Patton, a lean, black musician with straight hair and a nose tapered from his Choctaw mix. He died in the poor and inglorious thirties, but his disciples in the Dockery Plantation, the cotton field where he took refuge with his family from the racist attacks on the banks of the Mississppi, were the first to be recognized thanks to those British boys with bangs that cheekily copied Howlin ‘Wolf or Muddy Waters in the sixties. Remember that the blues did not come out of the black ghetto until the Beatles and the Rolling had shown the Americans that this music was truly great.

Before music there was always the earth. “The settlers cornered the native Indians on the reservations. The men emigrated to find some work or directly so that they would not kill them. When the African slave trade comes to the south, what remains are women and children, “says historian Erich Jarvis in another sequence, which closes with a rhetorical question:” With whom did these African men associate? ” That’s why in New Orleans, the mother of all mixes, blacks come out at the Mardi Gras carnival wrapped in lavish plumes of feathers.

Photograph of the documentary about the celebration of Mardi Gras
Photograph of the documentary about the celebration of Mardi Gras

In miscegenation, Native Americans found relief and a curse. “They were treated worse than slaves,” notes legendary counterculture poet and MC5 manager John Sinclair. “You could be 90% indigenous and 10% black, but in the identity documents there were only two categories: white or black. Why?” Because by erasing the indigenous identity, the rights to the land were also erased.

Jimi Hendrix never hid his roots. As a child, he liked to rummage through his Cherokee grandmother’s trunk and dress in feathers and jackets with leather straps hanging down the sleeves. At Woodstock he came out dressed like this and the hippies confirmed that they wanted to be the new Indians. Jesee Ad Davis also made no secret of his proud Seminole ancestry. The Rollings “discovered” him one night in Los Angeles playing with the bluesman Taj Mahal and the next day the whole band had bought their plane tickets to London. “Jesse had something exotic, he was a native Indian, he dressed well and he played devilish and magnificent blues. The British aristocracy adored all this because it was something that they could never achieve, ”says Rolling Stone journalist David Frick in the film. He played with Lennon, George Harrison or Eric Clapton until he died of an overdose after hooking on the horse on a tour with Rod Stuart’s Faces.

Iggy Pop, Salsh, Marky Ramone and Wayne Kramer appear on screen paying homage to Link Wray, a Shawnee Indian who kept it a secret “because everyone hated them”, as his daughter says in the documentary. In 1958 he was asked at a party to play a foxtrop and since he didn’t know he decided to try a strange combination of notes. I had just invented the power chord, the backbone of loud and heavy rock. “Without Wray,” says the Foo Fighters drummer, “there would be no The Who, no Jeff Beck, no Led Zeppelin.”