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It has never ceased to amaze me as I have trained so many DJs for so many years how flat out ignorant some young people can be about our country’s history and about the music that we use at our events.
Part of my training involves three straight weeks that I spend on Music History. With each decade that we cover (starting in the 1940s) I spend a few moments on the “headlines” from that decade. We’re talking broad strokes here. Like in the 1940s I mention the fact that the U.S. was involved in WWII and that Roosevelt was our President during this tumultuous time. The blank stares that I get back during this shocks me. The same thing happens when we get to the 1960s and I mention the Civil Rights movement and JFK’s presidency. Does our school system teach anything anymore?
I believe it’s important to teach these things because music is not created in a vacuum. Music is a sign of the times. When you hear some of the early rock n roll from the 1950s you understand it even better when you put it in the context of the history of that decade. America was triumphant in the war and our economy was thriving after so many years of the great depression. A new generation, so big and massive they’d be nicknamed Baby Boomers, was growing up and rejecting their parents music (isn’t that always the way) and suddenly there was this new outlet for their angst. Elvis and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
As an example of how the times influence the music, I’ll often play two Beatles songs for my trainees. The first is “I Saw Here Standing There.” I’ll explain to them that this was an early Beatles song, one of the first in fact that Lennon and McCartney penned together. You can hear innocence and joy and energy throughout the entire song (especially those giddy “whoaaas” – have you ever actually tried to hit those notes?) The next song I’ll play for them is “Revolution” which was written and recorded just 5 short years after “I Saw Here Standing There.” But what has happened in those 5 years is monumental. The boys have grown up. And the 1960s have changed as well, from those early naive years to the weighty and serious days of the late 60s. Martin Luther King has been shot dead and then two months later Bobby Kennedy is killed as well. This is no time for “I wanna hold your hand.” This is time for “We all wanna change the world.” And when I play those opening angry chords of “Revolution” I think they get it. They see how understanding the times helps understand the music that came from it.
There are many examples of this that I use. They say that the 1970’s was the “Me Decade” and playing some of the Disco Hits from that time helps emphasize this fact. There were no great “revolution” songs from the 1970s but you’d need more than two hands to count all the songs with the word “boogie” in the title. Music no longer sought to make a difference. It simply wanted you to “shake shake shake.” Not that this is a bad thing. I happen to love the dance music from the 1970s and I sometimes wish musicians would leave politicking to the politicians. But then again if Bill Clinton can get elected by playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show I guess the lines have been forever blurred.
If you read this column regularly you know the ideal age of my recruits are the late teens and early twenties. Too young obviously to “remember” the essential music they’ll need to know at any event that’s not a School Dance or Sweet 16. So the burden of educating them on what they’ll need to know falls upon me. Three weeks is not nearly enough time to cover any era or musical genre in depth. But I scratch the surface of enough topics so that my trainees have a decent working knowledge. Knowing that Big Band is the sound of the 1940s and Rock n Roll of the 50s makes them much more well-rounded than when they first started.
Now, if we could just get our school systems to start teaching some basic history . . .
Mike Walter is the owner of Elite Entertainment of New Jersey and a nationally recognized expert in the area of multisystem company development and staff training. You can contact Mike at

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