As a child, Fred Lincoln "Link" Wray jnr 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 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 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.

Advertisement

Wray is one of many Native American musicians whose stories are featured in a documentary showing how they helped lay the foundations to rock, blues and jazz and shaped generations of musicians. RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World will be broadcast online by the US Public Broadcasting Service network.

The film is the brainchild of Apache guitarist Stevie Salas, who has performed with the likes of Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger.

It was during a tour with Stewart that California-raised Salas began to wonder about the Native American rock musicians who preceded him.

"So I started to investigate," Salas said.

Link Wray, the 73-year-old Shawnee Indian and acclaimed pioneer of punk and heavy metal. Photo / AP
Link Wray, the 73-year-old Shawnee Indian and acclaimed pioneer of punk and heavy metal. Photo / AP

Now 54, Salas stumbled on Wray. Then he found out about Oklahoma-born Jesse Ed Davis, a guitarist of Kiowa and Comanche ancestry who performed with John Lennon.

Salas' search eventually launched an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, then a film.

"People need to know about Link Wray. People need to know about Jesse Ed Davis," he said.

But rock musicians aren't the only performers the production seeks to highlight. It touches on blues pioneer Charley Patton, an early 20th century guitarist of Choctaw and African-American ancestry. The film shows how some of Patton's music preserved on rough vinyl recordings is similar to traditional American Indian songs. Those traditions were fused with black music.

Advertisement

Legendary bluesman Howlin' Wolf would say he learned to play guitar from an "Indian man", Charley Patton.

The film also introduces viewers to 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 known as the "The Queen of Swing" and had a style so unique that young Italian-American aspiring singers Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra began copying her form.

The film goes into the career of Randy Castillo, the New Mexico-born Isleta Pueblo drummer for Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe. It also explores that of Robbie Robertson, a Canadian of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, who performed with Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s before forming his own group, The Band.

"Be proud you're an Indian," Robertson said he was told as a child, "but be careful who you tell."

As the Native American musicians get closer to the 21st century, the film shows they stop hiding their identity and begin to celebrate it.

- AP