Bob Santelli has done a lot of public speaking over the years, so he’s never at a loss for words.
Well, almost never. One exception came at the 2020 Grammy Awards ceremony last month in Los Angeles, when Santelli learned that he and collaborators Jeff Place and Pete Reiniger had won the Best Historical Album Grammy for “Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection,” a comprehensive six-CD anthology (with an accompanying 200-page book) spanning the late American folk legend’s career.
“To be honest, I was totally caught off guard,” said Santelli, an accomplished music journalist and historian who serves as Oregon State University’s director of popular music and performing arts. “When they called our names, I totally froze in my seat.”
He wasn’t tongue-tied for long. After coming onstage to accept his award, Santelli started talking about a subject near and dear to his heart: Pete Seeger’s music and the deeply held convictions about environmental protection, civil rights, human dignity and economic equality that informed it.
The Seeger anthology was the third in a trio of CD box sets co-produced by Santelli for Smithsonian Folkways highlighting the work of “three titans of folk music,” in Santelli’s words.
The first, “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection,” was nominated for a Grammy in 2013 but didn’t win, losing out to Beach Boy Brian Wilson for his reissue of the band’s enigmatic “Smile” album. “Lead Belly,” released in 2015, wasn’t nominated but was hailed as one of the best blues albums of the year by Living Blues magazine.
This year, Santelli was sure the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences would bestow the Best Historical Album honor on another comprehensive anthology, “Woodstock: Back to the Garden” (which wound up winning in another category).
“This was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock,” he pointed out. “Quite honestly, we thought that was what would win, so when they called our name, it was quite surprising.”
Santelli has made a career out of chronicling and celebrating popular music. He’s worked as a music critic, contributed to Rolling Stone and authored or contributed to around two dozen books, including volumes on Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the blues and the Beatles.
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He was one of the founding curators of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, served as CEO of the Experience Music Project and, before coming to OSU, was executive director of the Grammy Museum. His resume also includes producing concerts at the Kennedy Center and musical programs in the Obama White House.
“The box sets are just one of a number of areas where I’ve made it my mission to keep that music alive and, hopefully, transcend generations,” Santelli said.
Since bringing his talents to Corvallis, Santelli has continued in much the same vein.
He’s produced the American Strings concert-and-conversation series at the Majestic Theatre, which has brought in such luminaries as Country Joe McDonald, Jesse Colin Young and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary fame.
He orchestrated “The 60s: The Decade that Changed America,” a series of lectures and presentations sponsored by OSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that included appearances by the publicist and official photographer of the Woodstock music festival, an expert on the Beatles and several surviving members of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
He helped establish a popular music studies minor at OSU, and he’s started teaching courses on the topic. Last fall he taught a class called “American Music Tradition,” and this term’s offering, “Rock ’n’ Roll in American Culture,” has 100 students enrolled in it.
In a way, you can thank Pete Seeger for all of that. When he was about 12 years old, Santelli recalled, he heard Seeger perform the Woody Guthrie classic “This land Is Your Land” and was enthralled. The song had such a powerful effect on him that he later wrote a book about it, “This Land Is Your Land: The Journey of an American Folk Song.”
He developed a personal relationship with Seeger, working with him on a number of projects and coming to see him as a mentor. It was Seeger, he said, who taught him that music can act as an agent for social, political and economic change in America — and helped instill in him a desire to share his passion with others.
“That’s why I’m at Oregon State. That’s why I teach — to pass it on,” Santelli said.
“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a great career. Now it’s time to make sure there’s a road for this new generation to follow.”
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