“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato
“How is it that music can, without words, evoke our laughter, our fears, our highest aspirations?” ― Jane Swan
I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think
in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of
music.” Albert Einstein
The blustery winds now bother me-the older I get the more it seems to just cut through me. I still love winter night skies-the moon and the constellations last week were spectacular. But I get tired of winter around mid-February, and I spend a lot more time indoors. And a lot of that time I spend watching streaming movies, especially about music.
A few months ago I wrote about some of the movies that I had seen and loved-Muscle Shoals, about the Fame Studios and the band that backed many of the soul greats that I grew up listening to, The Last of the Mississippi Jukes, about juke joints trying to survive in the modern world, and Harlem Street Singer, a wonderful biography about the amazing guitarist and singer Rev. Gary Davis. To that list of favorites, I have to add two more: Rumble, and Two Trains Running. For this newsletter I will introduce Rumble and will talk about Two Trains Running for the next one.
Rumble, subtitled, “Indians Who Rocked the World,” is about Native Americans whose guitar playing, singing, rhythmic approach, and cultural outlooks had a strong influence on much of American popular music. The film starts with Link Wray, the guitarist whose 1958 tune, Rumble, changed the sound of the electric guitar in American music about as much as Chuck Berry and B.B. King did. It was Wray who introduced what is now called, “the power chord” to rock, and guitarists all over the world have been paying homage to and making use of that for years. His instrumental, Rumble, brought distortion, ringing chords, and loud, hard rhythms to the world. It was a totally new sound, and its effects have been used. There is a stunning split screen early on in the film where Peter Townshend of the Who and Wray are shown playing. It is clear where Pete and The Who got so much of their approach.
Wray also brought a new type and level of showmanship to the genre with
his leather jackets and leather pants, sunglasses, long black hair, and
dramatic stage presence. He would stalk the stage, hitting chords,
holding them, and strolling around
the stage as those chords rang out. Both musically and stylistically he
set the stage for much of what rock has sounded and looked like ever
The film then travels back in time and looks somewhat chronologically at other influences Native American cultures have had on American music. A lot of that surprised and enlightened me. I was always fascinated by the weird mix of rhythms in some songs by bluesmen such as Charlie Patton and Howling Wolf and in New Orleans music. These bluesmen and other musicians had Native ancestry, and some of their relatives are in the film, pointing out how those Native influences can be found in the music. There is also the historical record of how Native music merged with black music in a fascinating section featuring Carolina Chocolate Drops banjo player Rhianna Giddens. These cross-cultural influences make up that delicious gumbo that is so much a significant part of American music. It is a fascinating musical and musical history lesson.
There are also sections on the important roles played by Mildred Bailey, the great jazz singer of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and folksingers Peter La Farge and Buffy St Marie, both as musicians and social activist. And there are loving sections on two of my all-time favorite guitarists, Robbie Robertson of the Band, and Jesse Ed Davis, who I first heard with Taj Mahal's first band. The stories of how they learned to play, their early experiences, and especially who they both influenced are moving and memorable.
Rumble is an amazing and important film. Both musically and historically it presents us with so much that makes amazing connections and allows us to see what was long there but beneath our gaze for so long. It is available on Amazon Prime, and I highly recommend it.