The Indigenous Roots of Rock and Roll

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Essential Question

What does Link Wray’s biography say about how Native Americans lived in the first half of the 20th century, and what role did Wray’s upbringing have on his music?

Overview

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In this lesson, students watch clips from RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked The World and explore Link Wray’s position as an influence on later Hard Rock and Heavy Metal musicians. Students will investigate the history of the Shawnee Tribe, and use Wray as a case study to consider what life might have been like for a Shawnee in the American South during the early 20th Century. Finally, students debate ways Wray’s early life might have contributed to his future musical achievements, and find common themes between the song “Rumble” and the poem Nationhood by Laura ‘Da.

Many would argue that Rock and Roll has historically been the music of rule breakers. It turns out that Rock and Roll is also the music of guitar amp breakers. Beginning in 1953 with guitarist Willie Kizart’s crackling part on Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” which was performed on a “broken” guitar amp, many guitarists in the emerging genre of Rock and Roll sought to overdrive and distort their sound. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards used a hi-tech new “fuzzbox” to achieve the menacing distortion heard on the 1965 hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” And, like many young guitarists did at the time, The Kinks’ Dave Davies slit the speaker cones on his amp to get the fuzzy tone of the 1964 hit, “You Really Got Me.” However, it likely wasn’t another British rocker, or even Kizart that Richards and Davies were emulating. It was Link Wray, a Native American from rural North Carolina.

In January 1958, brothers Link, Doug, and Vernon Wray were performing as the house band in Fredericksburg, Virginia for a record hop organized by local DJ and TV personality Milt Grant. Shortly into the show, audience members requested the band play “The Stroll,” a song released a month earlier by The Diamonds. Link, the group’s guitar player, had spent much of the previous year in the hospital recovering from tuberculosis, and didn’t know “The Stroll.” Doug, the drummer, counted the song off anyway. Link had no choice but to play something. That something, which they named “Rumble,” was mostly three chords and a riff, sustained above Doug Wray’s lumbering 12/8 beat by the crunchy tone of Link Wray’s deliberately slashed speakers.

“It changed everything,” says Robbie Robertson in the film Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World,  “‘Rumble’ made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where Rock and Roll was going to go.” Wray’s guitar part, simple to the ears of many, encapsulated the powerfully defiant attitude that would become a defining characteristic of future Rock subgenres such as Hard Rock, Punk, and Heavy Metal. Both Pete Townshend of The Who and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page cite “Rumble” as a defining influence. Vocalist Iggy Pop remembers, “‘Rumble’ had the power to push me over the edge…it helped me say, ‘I’m going to be a musician.’” Pop wasn’t the only person who felt “Rumble,” an instrumental, might push one “over the edge.” Fearing that “Rumble” could inspire juvenile delinquency, it was banned by several radio stations, even in major cities such as Boston and New York. Though the song is over 60 years old, “Rumble” continues to evoke strong feelings in many, and it has been placed in films and TV Shows such as Pulp Fiction, Independence Day, and The Sopranos.

Some suggest the raw emotional power of “Rumble” is a musical reflection on the Wrays’ tumultuous childhoods. The Wray brothers were born in Dunn, North Carolina, to a Shawnee mother. “While Elvis grew up white-man poor,” Link often said, comparing himself to one of his idols, “I grew up Shawnee poor.” His mother was crippled by racist violence she experienced as a child, his father shellshocked by his experience as a soldier World War I. As a child, Link sometimes hid with his brothers under their beds as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized their segregated neighborhood. But at the same time, Link’s childhood in Dunn positively contributed to his musical development. His mother, a street preacher, instilled in him a love of song, and a local blues musician known as Hambone gave him his first guitar lessons. As filmmaker Antonino D’Ambrosio suggests in RUMBLE, these musical influences might have allowed Wray to take his difficult past and translate it in proactive ways.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How racism affected Native Americans in the mid 20th century
    • A basic history of the Shawnee tribe
    • About Shawnee-U.S. Government interactions under Presidents Jefferson and Jackson
    • About the Shawnee role in the War of 1812
    • About The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears
    • How segregating communities resulted in tight family units and the transmission of culture among different minority communities
    • The effects wars can have on American veterans
    • Connections between poverty and health in the United States
    • The role faith and religion played in Link Wray’s development
    • The extent to which a musician’s personal life might influence their music
    • Connections between Link Wray’s “Rumble” to the poem Nationhood by Laura Da’
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • By examining videos and autobiographical accounts of Link Wray’s early life students will be able to imagine what life for a Shawnee person might have been like in the first half of the 20th Century, and how such an experience might have impacted Wray’s music.

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Tell students that they will begin with a free writing exercise. Ask students to choose a  musician, actor, athlete, or other public figure, and to consider how what they know about that person’s upbringing might have contributed to their current career. If students do not know much about the biographies of their choices, encourage them to write creatively and imagine what that person’s young life might have been like. Then, ask students to volunteer to share their responses.
  2. Ask the class:
    • In what ways do you think a person’s childhood might affect their future?

Procedure:

  1. Explain to students that in this lesson they will be learning about Link Wray, half-Shawnee Native American from North Carolina who was a major influence on Rock, Hard Rock, Punk, and Metal guitarists. Play Clip 1, “The Birth of Rumble.” Ask students:
    • What is it about the guitar sound of “Rumble” that seems to have influenced so many guitarists, including those interviewed in this clip?
    • How would you compare the guitar playing on “Rumble” with the early footage of Wray that opens Clip 1? (Consider replaying the first few moments of Clip 1 if necessary).
    • How might you describe the sound of “Rumble”? How might you describe Wray’s demeanor on stage in Clip 1? What about this might have influenced young musicians in the late 1950s?
    • Though it is an instrumental song, “Rumble” was banned on many radio stations, including those in major cities such as New York and Boston. What about the song do you think some found so threatening? (Note to teacher: The song title, “Rumble,” was thought to reference gang fighting–West Side Story was popular at the time–and many thought the sound might “contribute to juvenile delinquency”)
  2. Tell students that you will now consider how the “distorted” sound of guitar was developed, and what it might have represented to some at the time. Play Clip 2, “Soundbreaking – The Development of the Fuzz Tone,”and ask students:
    • How do the musicians in this clip describe the sound of the guitar? What are some of the terms they use to describe this unique sound?
    • Can you think of a song you like that has a distorted guitar?
    • Why might a guitar that sounds “distorted,” “aggressive,” like a “monster” or a “villain” be a desired quality for musicians?
    • (Optional: ask students if there are any guitar players in the class, and if they use distortion on their guitar, and why.)
    • When do you think this sound might have first been created? Do you think it happened before the creation of the fuzz pedal mentioned in the clip?
    • Note to teacher: If you would like students to have a hands-on experience with guitar effects, try the TeachRock Guitar Effects TechTool
  3. Tell students that to consider Link Wray’s early life in North Carolina as a Shawnee, they will first explore Shawnee history. Distribute Handout 1 – “The Shawnee,” and read it aloud as a class. Then ask:
    • Where do you think the Wray ancestors fit in among the Shawnee who grappled with the limited options they faced throughout the early 19th century? (Encourage students to recognize that because they remained on the East Coast, Wray’s ancestors must have chosen to attempt to “assimilate.”)
    • What do you imagine life for an “assimilating” Shawnee in the American South may have been like in the 19th and early 20th century? Do you think Shawnee people would have easily fit in within existing communities? Why or why not?
  4. Tell students they will be thinking about how Link Wray’s upbringing as a Shawnee may have inspired “Rumble,” and the distorted guitar sounds that Wray helped pioneer. Split students into groups, and give one copy of Handout 2 – “Questions for Stations” to each group. Tell students they will be moving as a group to three different stations. In each station there will be a sheet of quotations from Link Wray, his daughter Beth Wray Webb, and his niece, Sherry Wray. Have each group read the quotes and then discuss the questions. Stations are as followed:
  5. As a class, discuss each of the questions in the handout. Then ask students:
    • How might each of these factors in Wray’s life be interrelated? (For example, discuss how the racism of the time might have influenced Wray’s health, or how Wray’s close family might have been a result of poverty and segregation).
  6. Play Clip 3, “Antonino D’Ambrosio on Rumble.” Ask students:
    • In the clip, what does D’Ambrosio suggest was the motivation behind Rumble? (If necessary, remind students of D’Ambrosio’s comment that Wray was “annoyed and disappointed” by the fact that as Shawnee his family had been treated so badly).
    • What does D’Ambrosio mean when he says that Wray took the bitterness he felt about his childhood and created something not “reductive, but proactive”? How was Wray’s response “proactive”?
    • Based on what you read in the activity, do you think Wray would agree with D’Ambrosio’s argument that Rumble isn’t about fighting, but more about “disrupting” and “being active?”
  7. Pass out to each student Handout 3 – “Debating the Inspiration of Rumble.” After completion, ask students to share what they wrote.
  8. Pass out to each student Handout 4 – “Nationhood, Laura Da'”. Read the poem together as a class or individually. Then ask students:
    • Personally, what do you think Laura Da’ is expressing in this poem?
    • How would you describe the relationship between the first and second paragraph of the poem? How are they connected?
    • What claims might Laura Da’ be making about the United States of America in this poem?
    • What similarities do you find between Link Wray and Laura Da’? How might this poem be similar to “Rumble”?
    • Do you see this poem as being “disruptive,” similar to Rumble? Why or why not?

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • Can you think of another musician that, like Link Wray, came from a marginal setting and faced discrimination? Is their music a “proactive” means to address these issues, as D’Ambrosio describes of Link Wray?
    • Why might people from marginal places who have led difficult lives be inspired to create music?

Extension Activity:

  1. Beyond Link Wray, the Shawnee have contributed to American culture in a myriad of ways. Have students choose one of the following figures, and write a short biography on them, including their influence on American society, culture, or history.
    • Benjamin Harko, Jr. (Artist)
    • Big Jim (Politics)
    • Heidi Bigknife (Artist)
    • Black Bob (Politics)
    • Catecahassa or Black Hoof (Politics)
    • Tecumseh (Politics)
    • Weyapiersenwah or Blue Jacket (Politics)
    • Yvonne Chouteau (Artist)
    • Cornstalk (Politics)
    • George Drouillard (Explorer)
    • Ruthe Blalock Jones (Artist)
    • Keith Longhorn (Artist)
    • Nas’Naga (Writer)
    • Nonhelema (Politics)
    • Ernest Spybuck (Artist)
    • Tenskwatawa (Politics)

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text
  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words
  • Reading 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally
  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric
  • Speaking and Listening 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience
  • Speaking and Listening 5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations
  • Speaking and Listening 6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking
  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening
  • Language 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate
  • Language 5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings
  • Language 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies — National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education — National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards

Responding

  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.

Connecting

  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A3.4 Identify art in international industry and discuss ways in which the work reflects cultural perspective.
    A3.5 Analyze similarities and differences of purpose in art created in culturally diverse industry applications.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.1 Compare and contrast the ways in which different artistic media (television, newspapers, magazines, and electronic media) cover the same commercial content.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B7.4 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the actor and performance artist in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.