Rock Legends Show Their Tribal Music Roots

Posted July 2, 2010 at 4:01pm

The story of Native Americans in the United States has largely been a complex tale of tensions between indigenous and Western cultures.

Part of the U.S. government’s Americanization efforts, for instance, was to strip Indians of their tribal music by banning it in “civilizing schools.” As a result, many Native Americans appropriated Western music.

But some contemporary Native American musicians, such as the band Redbone, achieved great success by incorporating indigenous sounds into American pop. Others such as Peter La Farge never managed to become household names with the same techniques.

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture,” celebrates these musicians, both the vanguards and the underrated, for their immense contributions to American popular music.

“We wanted it to be like ‘12 Natives you didn’t know you knew,'” said Stevie Salas, a consultant for the exhibit as well as one of the featured musicians. “This exhibition is really dedicated to people who excelled in the mainstream.”

The exhibit includes wall panels, photos and some memorabilia, along with portable headsets so visitors can listen to the music of performers while reading about their role in pop culture.

It highlights some gems of rock ‘n’ roll, especially Link Wray, who basically invented the power chord. His ground-breaking, overdriven sound on the 1958 single “Rumble” changed modern rock guitar, allowing musicians such as Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page a framework upon which to create the now-iconic songs of the Who and Led Zeppelin.

“When I found out Link Wray was a Native American, it blew my mind,” Salas said. “To put a record like that out in 1958 with distortion, nobody really talks about that, but that’s epic. He’s the original punk rocker.”

Wray’s 1958 Danelectro Longhorn guitar is on display.

Another great is Jesse Ed Davis, a session guitarist who might be best known for his work on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.”

“The guy worked for all four Beatles,” Salas said. “He played with Eric Clapton. This guy played with the greats. Everyone should know who he is, not just Native people. He could be from outer space and it’s just as important that you know who he is.”

Each station in the exhibit features a quotation from a popular musician who worked with the featured artist, including Townshend, Clapton, Bob Dylan and Bootsy Collins.

“I went to the people they worked with and tried to find the biggest, most eye-opening, jaw-dropping people to contribute,” Salas said. “And every one of them was like, ‘Yeah, these guys were fantastic! Let’s do this! This is important to do!'”

Some musicians are unmistakably Native American, such as jazz trombonist Russell “Big Chief” Moore, who played with Louis Armstrong; Redbone, whose 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love” incorporated tribal chanting; and Robbie Robertson, the Band’s primary songwriter who later in his career released solo albums inspired by his mother’s Mohawk heritage.

But visitors might be surprised to find that Ozzy Osbourne’s drummer, Randy Castillo, or Grammy Award-winning singer Rita Coolidge have Native ancestry too.

The exhibit offers visitors a chance to, in essence, reexamine the legacy of these musicians through the lens of their Native heritage.

Coolidge, Redbone and folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie earned worldwide acclaim and are celebrated in the exhibit for their chart-topping singles.

Singer-songwriter La Farge, on the other hand, worked chiefly in the shadows. He is best known for his song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” popularized by Johnny Cash in his 1964 album “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.”

“He becomes the figure through which Johnny Cash defines himself as a country musician,” said Chris Turner, the exhibit’s curator.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is an artist who, even though he had Cherokee ancestry, most people don’t associate with Native Americans at all: Jimi Hendrix.

“Hendrix’s estate really told me it was super important to the family and to Jimi that people know about his Native roots,” Salas said.

Hendrix’s “coat of many colors,” a spectacularly vibrant hippie trench coat, is on display — perhaps homage to Hendrix’s own colorful and complex background.

“In a sense, he was almost so great, he needed all of these eclectic parts of his background,” Turner said. “People have just not really recognized [his Native American ancestry] as an important part of how complicated he was.”

Salas, who in addition to his solo work has played guitar with George Clinton, Mick Jagger and several music giants, and now puts bands together for “American Idol” winners, is featured in a video. His signature guitar, shaped like the club wielded by a character in “The Last of the Mohicans,” is on display, too.

The most amazing thing about the exhibit, he says, is seeing it explored by Native kids who might live on reservations far from the city lights.

“It gives them the sense that they really can accomplish things,” he said. “They can go in there and they can say, ‘Wow, that’s obtainable.'”

Although the exhibit is already open to the public, there will be a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 7, with musical performances by Salas and the New Orleans band Dumpstaphunk. The exhibit runs through Jan. 2.