Influence of Native American musicians across genres

Power chords, heavy metal drum solos, crooners, and the blues

Patrick Trujillo photo, Native American Bass Player, 2013 Gathering of Nations, Flickr CC by 2.0

I’m lucky to live in Lawrence, Kansas, so I can spend a week each year at my adult summer camp known as the Free State Festival. That means I spend the week watching films, listening to music, catching comic performances, and participating in discussions of ideas raised by those artistic performances. If you’re not fortunate enough to live in Lawrence, then I hope your city has a comparable arts festival.

Film, music, and ideas all came together for me with one topic at Free State Fest: indigenous music (aka native music, Indian music, Native American music — those terms are a topic in themselves). I heard a panel in a “happy hour salon” (drinks and conversation) on the “Influence of Indigenous Music.” Then I watched the film Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, which included an abundance of music as well as a documentary film experience. (I also heard live music from the Los Angeles band Chicano Batman — definitely not an indigenous music group or musicians, but a genre-expanding band for me that kept me thinking about musical influences.)

What I especially loved from the film and the panel was the wide range of musical genres that American Indian musicians have contributed to. Major Native American figures shaped the music of rock, blues, jazz, folk, heavy metal, and more. And native musicians today play the whole gamut of genres from pop to rap, country to electronic dance music, and hybrids of all with traditional musical genres.

And why not? As Rhonda LeValdo said,

​More about the salon and her panel soon.

The film Rumble toured us through guitarist Link Wray’s incredible power chords that influenced rock guitarists forever. I loved hearing his account that he’d come up with it when playing at a record hop show and was asked to play “The Stroll.” “I don’t know the stroll.” So he came up with something to fit that beat, creating an instantly recognizable opening chord and rhythm (play it, you’ll know it):

Don’t let that picture fool you. “Rumble” — the only purely instrumental song ever banned for being too subversive. A beat described as resembling a gang fight so well that many US radio stations refused to play it in 1958. True, it’s no Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim “Jets Song” from West Side Story

Bahm Bahm Baaaaaahhhhhhhm

“Rumble” was also a song — as were all the power chords of Link Wray — that could incite new guitar sounds from John Lennon, to Jimi Hendrix, to Jimmy Page, to Stevie Ray Vaughn, to any punk band or rock musician playing today, whether they know it or not. So testified many, many musicians in the film.

And the film Rumble did more than introduce us to Link Wray. It explored many of the genres of music that have been influenced by Native American sounds and rhythms.

Ulali, a capella singers of indigenous chorales and the many combinations of African and Native musical elements, from the Southeast to New Orleans. Rock guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. Songwriter and musician Robbie Robertson of The Band and more. The folk singer of protest songs Buffy Sainte-Marie. The incredible drummer for Ozzy Osbourne Randy Castillo. Musicians who wore their native heritage visibly and proudly. Each of whom changed music in some way.

Even more expanding for my awareness was the salon panel before the film and commentary after, especially the contributions of Rhonda LeValdo. As host of a radio show “Native Spirit” on KKFI, professor of Media Communications at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, and journalist, Rhonda LeValdo opened the salon with a sampler of indigenous music from a variety of genres.

Yes, we heard what she called at one point “powwow music,” and we heard indigenous musicians creating rap, rock, jazz, country, blues, pop, and EDM. And the influence of drums through it all. As far as I can tell, there is no genre that doesn’t have indigenous artists contributing to it.

She probably says it best, on her KKFI show site, where she lists the genres her show includes as:

“Northern and Southern Powwow Music, traditional tribal music as well as Stomp Dance, Peyote Native American Church, Rabbit Dance, Pueblo Music including Buffalo Dances, Basket Dances. Contemporary style including Indigenous (Blues/Rock), Arigon Starr (Country/Rock), Rap, and Hip Hop.”

​It knows no bounds. Nor should it.

​So take a listen to some of the greats who influenced music of many genres — every one with Native American roots. I’ve included links to every one, but I’m sampling just a few to keep this story from taking five hours to load

Charley Patton and the blues. One of the great moments in Rumble is watching Pure Fe, a member of Ulali and a traditional acapella singer, listening to a recording of Charley Patton and her eyes lighting up as she recognizes the vocal style and rhythms of her traditional music in his blues. Can you hear it, she says with delight?

So I ask you, can you hear it?

Mildred Bailey, musical stylist and model for Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett

Jesse Ed Davis, guitarist for Taj Mahal, with George Harrison et al at Concert for Bangladesh, and more

Jimi Hendrix himself, proud of his native origins as well

Buffy Sainte-Marie, protest song writer and folk singer, perhaps most famous for “Universal Soldier”

Robbie Robertson, songwriter and musician for The Band and more

Randy Castillo, incredible drummer for Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue, who I’ll end with since he may be as far from the stereotype of native music as possible but taking us back to the drums and the rhythm that the panelists and the film repeatedly mentioned as so central to Native American music

Like this? Click on the green heart, or read more of my stories here on Medium or on my blog Genre-Colored Glasses

Revised from its original publication on my blog at

Writer, teacher, researcher, PhD, optimist. I explore language & everyday genres to help people see & choose the language & genres they use.