Robert Santelli: Blues is the Great American Art Form

Robert Santelli (photo courtesy
Robert Santelli (photo courtesy

Robert Santelli is the Executive Director of The Grammy Museum and a lifelong scholar in the blues. Among his many accomplishments are a number of definitive books on the genre, as well as pivotal roles in some of the most celebrated music museums in the world, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Experience Music Project in Seattle.

In anticipation of Robert’s upcoming speech in Saint Louis for the National Blues Museum, we sat down to discuss his museum work, the influence (and lack of influence) the blues has had on popular music, his writing, and the special things that make music museums truly great.


American Blues Scene: I have your Big Book of Blues actually dog eared and sitting on my bookshelf. I didn’t, for the longest time, connect two and two that you were the same guy who did so much with music museums. But that book really introduced me to a lot of blues people I maybe wouldn’t have found out about that quickly. I can still remember reading that opening line you had about Professor Longhair, “He was always too funky for the mainstream”…

Robert Santelli: That was my first blues book and, whew, was that a lot of work. That was four years in the making and I can remember how many dead ends I would run into because just trying to find correct birth dates, for instances, for artists that didn’t even have a birth certificates… had me combing through Mississippi archives. It was the biggest book I’ve ever written, I’ll tell you that. Because at that time, there had been not too many blues encyclopedias and I just felt like this would be something for people like yourself to dig into. You’re not the only person that’s told me, “oh it’s in my library, it’s falling apart.”

You did several books, you wrote the book on Woody Guthrie. You wrote several blues books. Can we talk about those a little bit?

Sure! I don’t know exactly how I’ve written, quite honestly, but in the neighborhood of about thirteen or fourteen. Three of them have been about the blues. I followed Big Book of Blues with a book called The Best of the Blues, which looked at the hundred, what I thought were the greatest recordings that every blues fan should have on their shelf. Then I did a book with Martin Scorsese called Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. It was a PBS Companion to the Martin Scorsese presents the Blues PBS Series. Those were the three, and during that time, we also worked with Congress to have 2000 declared “The Year of the Blues,” and officially acknowledged by Congress.

So blues has been a part of not just my professional life as a journalist and historian but personally, you know? It is, to me, the music form that I turn to again and again and again since I was a kid and it never fails me. It’s a form that provides an infinite amount of wisdom and enjoyment.

How did you get started? A young jersey boy that turns rock journalist and then does these incredible things with museums. How did you get started with the blues in the first place?

I think like everyone my age, baby boomers growing up in the late 60s… I really got it from two ends, I grew up in Jersey right across the river from New York City. I got it from two areas, Bob Dylan first, and reading about him and finding out how he was influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller. And I did my homework and went backwards, which is the way I found Woody Guthrie through Dylan. And also through Rock n Roll — Particularly Cream and John Mayall, but especially Cream. When I was learning guitar, playing in bands, at one point Clapton and Cream came out with their version of “Crossroads Blues”, a Robert Johnson tune. That was pretty powerful.

Having also lived in Jersey, I got to see a Rolling Stones in concert, I got to see B.B. King, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters… Through rock & roll, my love and interest in the blues was born.

I would argue that you might be one of the few people who could definitively answer the question about what kind of impact the blues has made on both American culture and contemporary music.

I don’t think that there’s any question that the blues is the bedrock of all American music. That you take away the blues and you’re left with a very shaky hierarchy of American music. Whether you’re talking about Country or jazz, R&B, rock & roll, or anything else. They all have the blues seed. They’re all connected down the road to blues. I argue that it IS the great American music form. It’s not jazz, it’s the blues. That blues is the essential ingredient in everything that we do. And that goes to Aaron Copeland and it goes to… it goes to Gershwin.

The emotional intensity of the blues has been a vital part of culture since then. We’re talking about the late 1880’s, and it’s when the blues really begins to kind of surface that we find out that there’s this sound coming out of the American south.

It is there. The scary part, however, is that it’s becoming less so in the 21st century. As younger people grow up without a deep-seated connection to the blues, their association with it is weak and their knowledge of it is thin, and as a result, the respect that it needs is not where it should be today with young people.

So, here at the Grammy Museum, and by doing lectures and working with the White House with their blues program, which we did last February, all of these things are part of an overall personal mission of mine to make sure we don’t forget about this music and that we celebrate it and preserve it in a way that’s fitting for it’s importance.

So you don’t feel that the blues is still largely influencing today’s music, then?

No, I really don’t. When I hear electronic dance music, EDM, which is increasingly becoming popular with today’s young people, there’s very, very little, if any, trace of the blues in there. It’s being born in a laptop. I’m not discrediting it, I happen to like it a lot, but I’m just saying in the past there had always been a blues root — and used to be more roots. Although you can still find it in hip hop, as the trend goes to EDM, you’re finding less and less influence from the blues. Now that doesn’t mean that the blues is dead or dying, it just means that we’re in a little bit of a tailspin that needs to be corrected. And I’m confident that that will.

You think so?

I do. For instance, with the arrival with these new museums that are sprouting up, The National Blues Museum in saint Louis, a blues museum opening up in Chicago, an African American Museum that will concentrate a lot on the blues that’s opening up in Nashville. There’s a great African American museum that’s going to open in 2015 on the mall in Washington D.C. that’s going to tell a big story about the blues. So we’ll get that tailspin fixed and the blues will be back where it should be in it’s historical importance. But at the moment, the blues is not there, but the hope is that it will correct itself.

Why do you feel it’s not there? Why is it not as influential now as it was 20 years ago?

Because young people today have less inclination to look at music that occurred before their time than baby boomers did. We seemed a little more fascinated than younger kids. And there’s a reason for it: Today young people have so much music to choose from. The investigative process is dying because they can get whatever they want in a second. It’s just too easy to listen to other things, and they just don’t have that relationship. I think the saving grace is, and I’m sure you go to Blues Festivals, you see young kids dancing and listening to the music. That’s where the hope and confidence is that we’ll get that thing fixed. And when I teach classes at the Grammy Museum, the interest and fascination is obvious. And when they leave the Grammy Museum, all we have to do is make sure the fascination continues.

I’m familiar with the classes you teach where you discuss the changing culture and how music influences and affects that, and am I right in thinking that what you’re more or less saying to me is that music is off it’s kilter, and that the direction we are in is a little unusual? How do you feel that music today is affecting our culture? Do you feel like it is?

I don’t feel like the music is off-kilter. I feel like music is vital and exciting today! It just doesn’t have the same kind of root structure as when I was a young kid and listened and embraced without any qualifications. Even today, it’s just different. It’s impactful — if you go to EDM where that music is being played, you’ll see how that packs young people in. Hip hop is still a vital music form for kids, they embrace it. Music is alive and well today — it’s just evolved. Music needs to evolve. It needs to reinvent itself.

Throughout the 21st century, we reinvented and reinvented and reinvented again our music so it would continue to grow and reflect in an accurate way that generation and the next generation. What I’m saying is that somewhere along the line, things changed. Where blues had always been that bedrock and that foundation for what has been going on in American popular music, that is less so today. And what I would like to see is not necessarily a return to the “old days,” but at least an acknowledgement of where we’ve been musically as a culture and as a country, and for kids to understand and appreciate the value of the blues in our history and our American music and legacy.

For a long time, with for example guys like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, music affected change through people. Do you feel like music now is still affecting change?

It doesn’t the way it used to. It affects change culturally in terms of what’s going on on the streets, but politically, it plays less of a roll than it once did. And once again, that’s not a bad thing necessarily, it’s just a reality. When you look at the 1960s and you see how many artists wrote songs of protest and songs with political social messages… There were a lot. That was the “golden age,” if you will.

Today, to get the occasional song or occasional act that really revels in that mission — whether you’re talking about Public Enemy or Rage against the Machine, they’re there. It’s just that they’re not there with the numbers. Or it’s not having the impact. Young people define themselves politically by the music they listen to. Of course, when that happened in the 60s and 70s, it meant a great deal.

I know you weren’t part of this decision, but you are in a much better position to help people understand than almost anyone else. The Grammy board cut several key categories not long ago and upset a lot of people. The upset matters I guess, but a lot of people see the Grammys as a benchmark of contemporary music, if you will, and you take away Zydeco and some Jazz categories, a Blues category, the Native American category… the argument could be that it bears an implication that that music is no longer as relevant as it once was. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I know you could read that. I understand that and I will say that I was against that change. I did not think that was a good idea. I’ve said that more than once in the past. However, I recognize the reasoning why. As music becomes more complex and it grows into more and more music forms, you run the risk of cheapening the Grammy Award by giving out so many of them. And at some point, they needed to be, perhaps, be trimmed. And when you don’t get enough entrants to truly make the award meaningful, over fifteen entries, (I’m not saying that was the case, I don’t know that, especially in the blues) but when you have a hard time getting a number of credible entries, you have to begin to wonder that maybe the award in this category is one we shouldn’t continue to give.

I don’t know all the details, I was not involved in any of that. But boy-oh-boy, being the guy that connects himself to the blues and American roots music, I took a lot of heat for it. It wasn’t me doing it, but I still get e-mails from people angry about that. It is what it is, and I wish that hadn’t happened, but like you said, the Grammy Awards is a benchmark and it is important, but we’ll find other ways to live with it.

I’ve been watching what you’ve been doing, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Experience Music Project, the Grammy Museum… It was really exciting to see you as a consultant with the National Blues Museum in whatever capacity. Can we talk a bit about your philosophy for creating these icons that that praises our music so much? It’s a little different from other museums that you just walk by panes of glass… You seem to have a little more enthusiasm for touch and feel. Can we talk about creating some of these monuments?

I think music museums are an essential part of the preservation and celebration of American music. They’re a repository of knowledge, information, inspiration, and interpretation. And by having all of those, these are places, if you’re a music fan, you should feel connected to these places that preserve and celebrate the music that you’re listening to.

For the longest time, they were talking about a blues museum and nothing had ever really gotten off the ground, so my hat goes off to Saint Louis for taking the initiative and getting the ball rolling to have something. I know there’s other projects going, and that’s great! There can’t be too many music museums as far as I’m concerned. The reason I say that is because, look at the art world! There’s an art museum in every small, medium and certainly large city in America. But fine art has not been our most popular art form in America — music and movies are. And of course, the Motion Picture Academy is putting up a museum here in Los Angeles to celebrate the American film experience and the history of film in America. But having the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, they all celebrate what is our greatest cultural treasure, which is our music. The hope is that the National Blues Museum in Saint Louis will get it’s support from the city and from the region and from blues fans literally all over the world to be successful and carry on a good work.

This may be a little subjective, but what makes you so effective at curating these music museums?

My passion is probably my most important trait. Since I was a little kid, I fell in love with American music, and I knew one thing: I was gonna spend my life in it. I’ve been a musician, music journalist, historian, a teacher, a museum curator, now a museum director. I felt like that’s where I needed to be and where I wanted to be.

It was easy for me as a journalist to make a transition into working on museums because in the end, a journalist tells a story and in the end, a museum curator tells a story — they just use different mediums and tools.

When we put together Rock & Roll Hall of Fame there were five or six original curators on that project. All of us were writers; we were all journalists. And all of us connected somehow to Rolling Stone. And that’s really what it was that allowed us to do what we needed to do — tell stories with the exhibits. Tell stories with the writing.

Did you get to work with Ahmet Ertegun?

Oh yeah! Sure! Ahmet was a mentor and he was basically the godfather of the Museum. I had the opportunity to interview Ahmet a number of times for the museum for our oral history project and he took a liking to the education project I was doing while I was there and it was an honor to work with him and help him carry out the mission and the idea that he had for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

He’s a real legend. That must’ve been incredible.

Oh yeah. The funny thing about Ahmet Ertegun was that he was in his 70s at the time, and when he heard a new song on the radio or someone showed him a new band, the enthusiasm was similar to the enthusiasm to an eighteen year old hearing a song for the first time. He never lost that deep love of the music and the ability to get excited about them.

Do you think that was what his secret weapon was for discovering all of this talent up into his 80s?

Yeah it was. And also, he had ears. He knew the difference between a good group and a great group, the difference between groups that would hit the pop charts and others that wouldn’t. He knew the difference between an artist that could really have a career and others that, you know, wouldn’t. He was a brilliant businessman and a great A&R guy.

Who’d you write for?

Many many publications… I was a full time freelance writer. Downbeat, Asbury Park Press, New York Times, Musician, Modern Drummer, Rolling Stone… if there was a music magazine, I wrote for it. I was supporting a wife and three small kids trying to write about music. Today that can’t be done. But back then it could, and I was fortunate to be able to do that for 18 years.

So what do you think about Rolling Stone these days?

It’s gotten thinner. (laughs) and yeah, you know, it’s more of a lifestyle and culture magazine than a pure music magazine, but the necessity of moving that direction was obviously the best step. The magazine is only as good as it’s readers. The magazine has to pay attention to it’s readership. If not, they don’t buy it, and if they don’t buy it, the ads don’t get sold, and if the ads don’t get sold, the magazine doesn’t exist.

Rolling Stone has done remarkably well despite a downturn in overall magazine reading. I still read every single issue.

So I want to roll back to the Museum for a second. You’re opening the first satellite Grammy Museum in the Mississippi Delta

It opens in the fall of 2015. We broke ground in Cleveland, MS just adjacent to Delta State University.

It’s our opportunity to fulfill a mission to put Grammy Museums in strategic and selected places in America and beyond America, really. We thought, since so much American music owes it’s existence to what was going on in the Mississippi Delta, why not start there?

So the money was raised, the location was found, and people down there were committed, so we’re off and running! That’ll be the first museum outside of L.A. to carry that name.

I want to talk about your teaching for a second: do you still teach college classes?

Mostly I talk here at the Museum. I teach a continuing education class, for lack of a better term. Every January/February, I’ll pick a topic and teach. It’s free, open to the public. We’ve done Dylan, Springsteen, we’ve done blues, hip hop… So I’ll pick an artist or trend or time frame, and then develop a course.

So it’s free and open to the public, and we’re developing this: I won’t be the only teacher in 2014. We have a whole menu of courses for people to take, all free, just again to get people more connected to the music and more knowledgable about it.

You’re going to be in Saint Louis speaking as part of the National Blues Museum’s continued education program this week!

Yes! We’re going to be talking about a lot of what we talked about here! It’s basically to prove the point that blues is the bedrock of American music, and if you remove the blues from the formula, the whole musical hierarchy collapses. And I’ll try to prove that point and do it in a way that gets people excited.

You mentioned that we’re largely “blues-less” in our influences in contemporary music, do you feel like it’s going to collapse?

No. I don’t. I feel like it needs to be restructured, but I don’t feel like it’s at a point of collapse. There’s still work to be done and there’s still things that we need to do as a culture and as a music form, but we’re going to be ok and like I said, it’s important to make certain that the information is there and the interpretation is there.

Who do you like in contemporary blues?

I think for sure my favorite artist are people like Keb Mo, Kevin Moore. My interest are more along the lines of people who have done things in blues in different ways. That might surprise you with some of the artists that I would pick.

Certainly Keb Mo has brought blues into his own version of pop and R&B. I love the jazz artist Bill Frisell, a great guitar player who has experimented with blues tones in a way that “oh that’s interesting”. As far as blues artists that excited me that are more in a traditional vein, certainly Gary Clark Jr. I think everyone will see him as someone who will really carry the torch. And of course, the old stalwarts: I never get tired of listening to Buddy Guy, or I’ll go deep into my record catalog to listen to Etta James and because I’m a historian I look as much backwards as I do forwards and still get great value out of that.

Robert Santelli will be speaking at the Peabody Opera House in Saint Louis, Mo in Wedensday, September 25th