In 1972, Link Wray took the stage in Greenwich Village. For the forty-three-year-old North Carolinian who had rocked the world with his dangerous-sounding instrumental hit, “Rumble,” in 1958, it was like any other gig. Except for the dozens of Native Americans representing a swath of reservations and tribes standing in the back of the small club, that is. 

“Most of the time when I’m playing, the crowd hollers and screams,” Wray, a Shawnee Native American, said twenty-five years later. “But the Indians just stood there, completely still and silent through the whole thing.”

The Village show was one of many Wray played to promote his eponymous 1971 album, a comeback after several years away from the record industry. Often overshadowed by “Rumble”—his distorted, power chord–heavy Top 40 hit, which everyone from Pete Townshend to Iggy Pop to Poison Ivy cite as rock’s ground zero, and that was pulled from radio station playlists for fear of inciting violence—Link Wray was a beautiful and brilliant homage to his rural North Carolina roots and a harbinger of modern Americana, blues-rock, and alt-country. (Jim James of My Morning Jacket has called it “a masterwork on par with Exile on Main St.”) It proved Wray’s versatility and saw him finally mastering his powerful but imperfect voice, its rawness the result of losing a lung to tuberculosis in the mid-fifties. 

Despite the success of “Rumble”—and the fact that Bob Dylan recently had told him over dinner that he was better than Hendrix (or so Wray claimed)—he was nervous that night in the Village. After all, he and his family spent much of their life in Dunn, North Carolina, hiding their Shawnee identity, not openly discussing it. 

The men sent word backstage that they wanted to talk. Wray, not knowing what to expect, came out to find them standing in a line. “They each came forward and gave me a great big hug, one at a time. They were saying we support you; we like you,” he recalled.

That validation and sense of cultural community was a far cry from Wray’s upbringing and that of countless other Native American musicians, whose erasure and censoring and—in Wray’s case, banning—is the centerpiece of the 2017 documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Robbie Robertson of The Band, who is half Mohawk, recounts in the film the advice his mother gave him: “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.” 

Link Wray marked Wray’s unofficial “coming out” as Shawnee; its cover featured Wray in profile, his pompadour grown out and adorned with a headband, leather jacket replaced by a tribal-print shirt and turquoise jewelry. Until then, he was often assumed white, even as he played “Rumble” to racist bikers in the volatile, newly integrated neighborhoods of mid-sixties Washington, D.C. 

Shawnee on his mother’s side and claiming Cherokee heritage from his paternal grandfather, Wray and his family were considered third-class citizens in 1930s Dunn, hated by whites and sometimes even other people of color. They “passed” whenever possible, listing themselves as white on censuses and effectively erasing their identity in the name of survival. Lillian Wray refused to teach her three boys the Shawnee language for fear of what would happen if they were caught speaking it. She turned out lights and put blankets over windows when the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses nearby. During KKK raids, she and local Cherokee parents would conduct the horrifying and humiliating ritual of hiding their children in barns, under beds or even in hastily dug holes in the ground. As Wray said, “The cops, the sheriff, the drugstore owner—they were all Ku Klux Klan. They put the masks on and, if you did something wrong, they’d tie you to a tree and whip you or kill you.” 

There were bright spots in Dunn: wandering through the woods around Rhodes Pond, singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with his mother as she worked the cotton fields, guitar lessons from a black neighbor remembered simply as “Hambone.” Wray painted an idyllic picture of North Carolina on Link Wray—bullfrogs croaking (“Black River Swamp”), the smell of pine trees (“Take Me Home Jesus”), and religious reverie (“La De Da”)—but he also referred to it more than once as “one big hell.”  

Wray’s career was likewise punctuated by sublime beauty and heartbreaking lows, often due to someone wanting Wray to be what he was not—and it’s not crazy to think that at least some of that ties back to a childhood spent hiding your identity. Even after two hits in the late fifties (“Rumble” and “Rawhide”), Cadence Records unceremoniously dropped him, the label boss dismissing his cash cow as “that Indian in Washington.” Epic picked Wray up, but the deal soon soured when he didn’t fit their clean-cut Duane Eddy mold and refused to re-record his reverb-laden “Jack the Ripper” with an orchestra. 

Even though he didn’t openly discuss being Shawnee until he was in his forties, growing up Native—or black, female, or queer for that matter—on top of being poor can’t help but marginalize you, especially when those who wield power can erase your art or your very existence. There were always chances for white artists, even poor ones, that Wray and other Native musicians didn’t have the means or opportunities to get. To paraphrase Wray, comparing Elvis Presley’s “white-man poor” and “Shawnee poor” was really like comparing apples to rotten apples. Music industry executives expected Wray and other Native artists to play ball, play dumb, and play white. Those artists didn’t hide their Indian-ness because they wanted to. They did it because they had to—or it was done for them.

Upon the release of Link Wray and his meeting with the Native representatives, in a way Wray was finally free—free to be Shawnee, free to be an artist, free to make “earth” music (as he called it) in his backwoods Maryland poultry-coop-turned-studio. But that freedom was as much great timing as anything else. By the early seventies, the hippies had co-opted American Indian culture; Wray’s newfound freedom was granted to him at least in part because it was marketable. While the Red Power movement was occupying Alcatraz and fighting for the return of Indigenous land in 1969, hippies at Woodstock were “playing Indian,” as Lana Richards puts it in a podcast on the subject. While Buffy Sainte-Marie (and even Johnny Cash, to some extent) was being blacklisted for publicly supporting Indigenous rights, the same generation of white rock stars who’d colonized “Rumble” and American blues music were fetishizing Native American culture. In fact, the turquoise Native American jewelry Wray sports on the cover of Link Wray wasn’t even his—he borrowed it from his Italian producer. But no matter how that freedom came to be, from the early seventies on, he never again hid his identity.  

Link Wray received great critical response, but largely got lost in the hippie shuffle, buried by the popularity of the brothers Allman and Flying Burrito. Wray reinvented himself dozens more times, releasing several more records and touring almost up until his death in 2005. His entire existence became a reflection of a struggle to be seen and heard. Everything he did in his rarely recognized sixty-year career, whether it was the amp-turned-to-eleven chords of “Rumble” or a twangy ballad about bullfrogs in Dunn, North Carolina—it was all an act of defiance just as powerful and arresting as forty Native American elders and chiefs standing in a small club in the Village, watching a rock show. 

Dana Raidt is an author who lives in Minneapolis. Her biography, Link Wray: The First Man in Black, will be published by Bazillion Points Books in summer 2019. Contact us at