I was watching the movie Ray with my wife the other night (by the way, Jamie Foxx is Ray Charles, it’s amazing) and there’s a scene where Ahmet Ertegun gives Ray Charles his song, “Mess Around.” It’s in G, he says and Ray starts to play in G. Ahmet says, “No. More Pete Johnson” and Ray starts playing boogie woogie in G instead and then the song just takes off. The cool thing was that Ray Charles knew enough about all the music around him to pull that off. Ray Charles was able to pull it off in many genres. He had a sense of history and a love of music, not just of one kind of music. The same thing is apparent in the ska-revival of the 90s. Most of those bands probably never even heard Desmond Dekker or Prince Buster. They heard the Specials perhaps or worse still maybe they just heard Rancid do ska. Anyway, they lack that appreciation for the history of the music. In a sense, they might as well just play note-for-note covers, because they just play and don’t feel and love it. I see this across genres. Many bands play within the narrow confines of their genre, because they really don’t know what’s out there. They really don’t know what came before. Seriously, you could be playing alt metal and a good grasp of Hank Williams or George Gershwin or John Coltrane can only help you. But sadly, most bands aren’t like that.
I wonder if the decline of vaudeville may have played into this cultural decline. Think about it, vaudevillians crossed all kinds of performance lines. They could act in anything, they could play anything. They had a broad knowledge of and love for performing. Today, metal bands are made up of metalheads and punk bands are made up of punks, etc and even though everyone has a few token artists that they like outside their “world,” only the best have any passion for other stuff.