To a startling degree, modern America finds itself in the same position almost exactly 100 years later. Rock ’n’ roll is to 21st-century America what the Wild West was to 20th-century America: a closed frontier, ripe for mass mythology. Because our era’s perspective begins with a pop culture that’s already rife with mythologies, we are particularly blind to the colossal impact that rock music—from Bill Haley to grunge—will have on the century before us.
Vaudeville in particular had some eerie parallels with the current small/indie touring band circuit. A huge national network of nightclubs, halls, and theaters existed a century ago, fueled by audiences hungry for entertainment and open to new ideas. Vaudevillians networked, hustled, and endured long stretches of downtime—just like traveling musicians today. Overlook the internal combustion engine, and the two eras of touring look awfully similar.
There was, however, one big difference. Vaudevillians were acutely aware of their own market. If your act bombed, you retooled it. As blackface became less and less politically palatable throughout the United States, blackface acts grew scarce. Even the “nut acts”—free-form, furniture-smashing loonies—aimed for laughs and responded to market forces (i.e., nightclub owners banning them for going bonkers). No vaudevillian dared alienate the audience they depended on for their bread and butter. There were no vaudeville equivalents of performance art or noise bands. Of all the varied wild acts touring the country at this time last century—dancers, magicians, musicians, ventriloquists—there wasn’t a single act that demanded the audience meet the artist on the artist’s terms. [emphasis added]“Expressing oneself” was something for painters and poets, not performers.
There have been any number of obituaries and post-mortems on almost any given style of music. I don't put much stock in any of them. What these laments for the deaths of musical styles often tend to be are laments for losses of culture or losses of purity. What if purity of style is no longer a serious consideration in 21st century global music? If you dig a style and dig a style that is a well-reserved tradition then you are, in some form or another a classicist. Classic bluegrass, classic folk, classic jazz, traditional this, traditional that it all ends up being classical or traditional. There's nothing new under the sun, right? In music it's tough to find something that isn't indebted to something else ... even if we were talking about Harry Partch.