Guitarist Link Wray – and his legacy

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A look at the guitarist Link Wray – with 1/2 Shawnee ancestry – who is a pivotal figure in rock-n-roll and still influential six years after his death.

If you try to draw a line from the first bluesman who cranked up his guitar amp to create a distorted sound …. all the way to the Hendrix/Page/Townshend rock guitarists …. that line must pass thru Link Wray who – if he never recorded another song than Rumble fifty years ago – would have a place in music history. And while he never scaled those heights again: he had a career worth noting.

Frederick Lincoln Wray (who had part Shawnee ancestry) was born in Dunn, North Carolina in 1929, with his family eventually settling in Maryland. Link served in the Korean War where he suffered from tuberculosis (eventually losing a lung). He concentrated on his guitar work and formed Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands, a western-swing band in the mid-1950’s.

This later evolved into the Ray Men when they became the house band on a Washington, D.C. TV show. Backing others (such as Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson) they became a more instrumental band (as Link’s vocal abilities were limited due to the loss of that lung).

Then while backing-up The Diamonds in 1958, Link Wray improvised a 12-bar blues instrumental titled “Oddball” which had a distorted sound when Wray poked holes in his amplifier’s speakers (much as Ike Turner’s dropped-and-damaged amp delivered a sound on Rocket 88 he came to believe was advantageous). It was an audience hit, yet Cadence Records producer Archie Bleyer was unimpressed.

But his daughter loved it, telling Bleyer it reminded her of the rumble scenes in “West Side Story” and the song was renamed Rumble – which, while primitive: doesn’t sound dated over fifty years later, and guitarists from Jimmy Page to Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix all cited the song as an influence. The Who’s Pete Townshend went further: stating in liner notes (for a 1970 Link Wray album) that, but for that tune: “I would never have picked up a guitar”. Some radio stations banned it (as ‘encouraging teen violence’) .. which only increased record sales.

Link and the Ray Men followed it up over the next few years with “Rawhide” and “Jack the Ripper” but then settled into an on-again-off-again remainder of his career. One reason is that record companies thought that – if they could dress him up and not be a juvenile delinquent poster child – he’d sell more records. Yet Link Wray was not cut out for playing “Claire de Lune”(!) as he did in 1960, and eventually Swan Records gave him room to stretch out. There were also periods of retirement, as well.

I recall him teaming up with rockabilly singer Robert Gordon throughout the 1970’s and he eventually married and relocated to Denmark, as his audience as a solo performer increasingly shifted across the Atlantic. One band-member for a time in the 1980’s was Anton Fig, who later joined Paul Shaffer’s “Late Show” band. His last album was Barbed Wire from 2000 and his music was featured on such films as “Pulp Fiction”, “Breathless” and John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”.

Link Wray died in Copenhagen, Denmark in November, 2005 at the age of 76. Former Maryland Governor Erlich declared January 15, 2006 as Link Wray Day, and he was voted #45 on the Greatest Guitarists of All Time by Rolling Stone.

Wray has also been inducted into two Halls of Fame: those for Native American Music … and for Rockabilly after his death. Rhino has a compilation album of note, and as long as guitarists want a sound that is anything-but-clean: the music of Link Wray will have a place.


If you haven’t had a listen to Rumble in some time: then below you can see why this song made his career.

For a song with lyrics and even vocals by Link Wray: here is his 1979 version of Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – which below you can listen to.

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last

But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,

Crying like a fire in the sun

Look out the saints are comin’ through

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense

Take what you have gathered from coincidence

The empty-handed painter from your streets

Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets

This sky, too, is folding under you

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

A new Catholic saint – but is she American, Canadian or …..

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With the impending canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha – the 17-century Mohawk woman who tended to the sick and elderly will be celebrated as a saint in the Catholic Church.

But where does she hail from? Follow the dispute after the jump ….

In a discussion that almost reminds one of when a baseball player (who played for multiple teams) is elected to the Hall of Fame – but then disagreements arise over which cap he should wear – where this woman hails from has a multiple-choice:

a)  An American (as she was born in New York)

b)  A Canadian (as she migrated to modern-day Québec with a Jesuit mission, and is buried there).

c)  A European, because “The Jesuits were the ones that worked with her, and if you wanted to go that way: they would be taking her back to France”.  Or …..

d)  Given that she died in 1680 at age 24, then simply this: “When she walked this Earth, there was no border. We recognize her as we recognize ourselves, as North American Indians,” said Ronald Boyer, 73, deacon of St. Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake, Québec.

Lindsay Earls, American heroine

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  On June 27, 2002, the US Supreme Court rendered a verdict on a case brought by Lindsay Earls, a member of the Cherokee Nation, whom I refer to as a great American heroine. Even though she is an Oklahoma resident, her case received a great deal of coverage in my region (Vermont/New Hampshire border) as she was by then a student at Dartmouth College (whose medical center I am employed at).

I wrote about this several years ago; alas, several links which I cite here no longer work. But here first is her story of courage, followed by what she is doing today.

In 1999, Lindsay Earls was a 16 year-old junior at Tecumseh High School (about 40 miles southeast of Oklahoma City) and was a self-described “goody two-shoes”; being a member of an academic quiz team and a choir singer. One day she was called out of choir practice to submit to a random urine test for drugs; based on a 1998 school board policy that required all students in grades 7 – 12 to submit to a urine test before joining any extracurricular activities.

In order to preserve her right to participate, she complied with the drug testing (and always passed) but filed a lawsuit claiming that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search/seizure. Her position was denied by the district court, then supported by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and then reached the US Supreme Court in March, 2002.

Lindsay Earls had reason for hope, since the most relevant Supreme Court precedent had to do with a 1995 case called Vernonia School District vs. Acton. This involved a school district that had experienced problems with drugs (performance-enhancing in addition to recreational use, if I recall correctly) on its athletic teams. It instituted a policy that called for random drug-testing of student-athletes only (due to the danger involved in contact sports). Though I regret anytime that we move away from probable cause to guilty-until-proven-innocent: that ruling at least seemed to have been decided judiciously.

By contrast, the Tecumseh policy was not based on a response to drug usage among students involved in extra-curricular activities, and it applied to members of, say, the debate team as well.

Lindsay Earls endured some rather snide remarks from people in her home state who trotted out the old police-state-like “if you have nothing to hide…..” argument, despite her passing the test. Particularly telling was this quote from someone in Congress:

Indiana Rep. Mark Souder (R) said the court’s ruling should drive an expansion of testing nationwide and will not hurt the privacy of students. The testing “is only burdensome on those who want to waste their lives getting high,” he said.

Yes ….. that Mark Souder …. he of marital infidelity fame .. infamy.


She also had to endure this from Justice Anthony Kennedy whom I regarded as a genuine hero himself in “Lawrence vs. Texas”:

Justice Anthony Kennedy drew gasps from the courtroom audience when he appeared to personally attack plaintiff Lindsay Earls. Kennedy posed a hypothetical with one school that had drug testing and one that did not — “the druggie school,” he called it. “Every parent” would want to send his children to the first school”, Kennedy told plaintiff’s attorney Graham Boyd of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project, but then added dismissively, “Well, perhaps not your client”.

On that fateful day of June 27, 2002, the US Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals case and ruled against Lindsay Earls by a 5-4 margin. This ruling sadly seemed to up-the-ante for the guilty-until-proven-innocent standard, as the court seemed to dismiss the fact that the high school in question had no history of drug use among those involved in extra-curricular activities, and now stretched hard to say that anyone who did participate had no right to expect privacy.

One wonders if a future court will take the next logical step and endorse testing for all students (on a loco-parentis basis). Paul Clement – then the deputy solicitor general for the Bush administration – felt school-wide drug testing would be constitutional and has said so in court. Yet as a  commentator for the Daily Texan noted at the time (sadly which is no longer on-line), “But obviously he’ll settle for extracurricular activities now, since it makes for an easier case“.

If there are saving graces to this story (besides the courage of this young woman) it would be:

(a)  Many school districts have not adopted these policies – some doubt their effectiveness, while the majority have decided the cost to be too much. And perhaps in part because …..

(b)  Those authorities realize that a 5-4 majority may fall some day; perhaps a future justice may echo the words of Justice Kennedy when he famously declared that the precedent that he voted to overturn in Lawrence vs. Texas was, “wrongly decided then, and it is still wrong“, and

(c)  Some conservatives felt uncomfortable by the decision, also – consider these words from Debra Saunders – first written in a Town Hall(!) column entitled “Want to join the chess club? Pee In a Cup”:

Liberals and conservatives should be outraged at last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of an Oklahoma school district’s mandatory drug testing policy for students involved in extracurricular activities. That 5-to-4 decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, was an assault on parental rights. Since drugs were involved, the justices felt free to indulge in judicial activism — something conservatives such as Thomas are supposed to abhor.

Finally, this story has a happy ending in that Lindsay Earls not only is a 2005 graduate of Dartmouth College, but for a few years held a position of responsibility at the Indigenous Democratic Network (as she no longer works there, this is no longer on-line):

Lindsay Earls, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, hails from Tecumseh, Oklahoma. While at Dartmouth, Lindsay was active in Dartmouth Civil Liberties Union and in DREAM – a Vermont-based mentoring program. Lindsay has been a recipient of the ACLU’s Youth Activism Award and the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union’s Bill of Rights Award.

Currently she is a law student at the University of Tulsa, and this past spring gave an address sponsored by the Oklahoma ACLU on her case.

I was originally tempted to entitle this essay (Native) American heroine …. but upon reflection, I think I have the title just as it should be.