CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame couldn’t have opened in a more riveting fashion.
After years of campaigning and beating out cities like New York, Memphis and Detroit, the museum opened its doors on the shores of Lake Erie in September 1995 with the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The extravaganza featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin and numerous other legends aired on HBO, billed as “Rock and Roll’s Finest Six Hours.”
The museum would display stunning exhibits in the months that followed. But a year into the Rock Hall’s existence, it was still looking for an annual event to continue that momentum.
“Right from the very start, I wanted to make sure that the museum was an active museum,” remembers Bob Santelli, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s first director of education and public programs. “And by that, I meant the programs that we would do were almost as important as the exhibits themselves. I was very ambitious and very anxious to get some things going.”
One of those things was American Music Masters, an event honoring the roots of rock artists who preceded rock and roll but whose music led to its development. First up, in 1996, was America’s Troubadour, Woody Guthrie.
Armed with a small staff, help from Guthrie’s daughter Nora and musicians like Springsteen and Pete Seeger, Santelli established the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s first signature that would last for 20 years.
[Listen to the episode of our CLE Rocks podcast that inspired this story HERE]
A native of Newark, NJ, Santelli grew up with two main passions: surfing and music, the latter of which included an affinity for fellow Jersey native Springsteen. Santelli turned his love of music into a writing career that began at the Asbury Park Press and Aquarian Weekly before moving to California for college and earning writing gigs with major publications like Rolling Stone.
Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner tapped Santelli to be part of the core group that would head to Cleveland to oversee the inception of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum, a physical space that would honor the polarizing institution that had been inducting rock and roll’s greatest artist since 1986.
“Prior to coming to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I was a journalist. And there were a lot of my colleagues who just dismissed the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” Santelli recalls. “They felt you can’t institutionalize something that comes from the streets. And I felt very differently about that and really set out to prove it through education and the public programs.”
Santelli began plotting the museum’s first big event following the Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His concept for the American Music Masters stretched beyond just a singular event. It would be a week’s worth of educational programs and live music that could prove the young museum’s worth.
“I put together my little team of three or four in the education department. I told them what I wanted to do and they looked at me horrified because none of them had ever done anything like that before,” Santelli says. And I said, ‘You know what? We can do this. Just follow my lead.”
Blowing Down That Old Dusty Road
For the American Music Masters, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame partnered with Case Western Reserve University and received full support from the Cleveland community. When it came to choosing the first artist to honor, Santelli tapped into familiar territory.
While working as a freelance writer in New Jersey, Santelli collaborated with Woody Guthrie’s former manager Harold Leventhal on a project curating the folk icon’s old artwork and papers. The material Santelli collected would become essential to the development of the Woody Guthrie Archives, managed by Guthrie’s daughter Nora.
“Nora Guthrie and I had known each other, and I had always been a huge Guthrie fan since I was a kid,” Santelli recalls. “I said to her, ‘I have this idea for the American Music Masters, and I would love to start with Woody Guthrie.”
Nora Guthrie was busy with projects of her own in 1996. It marked the first year of the Woody Guthrie Archives collection was made available to the public. She’d also begun work on “Mermaid Avenue,” an album of previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics put to music written and performed by British singer Billy Bragg and American band Wilco.
Still, Nora signed on as co-producer of the first American Music Masters, an event that would grow into a 10-day celebration titled “Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,” featuring exhibitions, an education conference, film festival and live performances. The festivities would culminate with a tribute concert at Severance Hall.
“It was very exciting because we decided to be very creative with what we were doing,” Nora Guthrie remembers. “Woody is not so much a stage artist as a street artist. So, we wanted to find a way of presenting the tribute that would be accessible to a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”
The Ballad of Tom Joad
Santelli had his team and a template for American Music Masters. But he still needed an artist to give the finale tribute concert the buzz it needed, which brought Santelli back to his Jersey roots.
“I grew up on the Jersey shore and probably met Bruce [Springsteen] in 1971 or ’72,” Santelli says. “I knew, in the early Eighties, he had become a real big Woody Guthrie fan after reading Joe Klein’s biography called “Woody Guthrie: A Life.” I got lucky that [Bruce] was available and he wanted to do this because he really believed in what Woody Guthrie stood for musically, politically and socially.”
Springsteen had slowed down by the mid-1990s. He was still active, temporarily re-organizing the E Street Band for a few new songs recorded on his first greatest hits album in 1995. Springsteen also released his second folk album “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” whose title track took inspiration from Guthrie’s own “The Ballad of Tom Joad.”
As luck would have it, Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad Tour” had an open date on Sept. 29, the night the American Music Masters’ closing tribute concert was set to take place.
“Securing Bruce, everything else rolled downhill after that. No one turned us down,” says Santelli. “There were people who wanted to play that we just simply didn’t have room for. We could have had two or three other concerts.”
The Many and the Few
The tribute concert’s lineup also included Guthrie’s son Arlo, Joe Ely, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Billy Bragg, Fred Hellerman, “Country Joe” McDonald, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, David Pirner of Soul Asylum, Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie and folk legend Pete Seeger.
“I remember being down in the green room before the show and so many people were just hovering around Pete as the elder statesman of the show,” Nora Guthrie says. “That was kind of cool just to see, the young people were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Pete Seeger!”
But it was the night’s opening act that threatened to steal the show. Buffalo, NY native Ani DiFranco was six albums deep into her career. But none of them charted on the mainstream charts.
DiFranco opened the tribute concert with a stunning cover of Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” a cautionary tale of poverty that DiFranco infused with compelling rage. The song would become a mainstay in her live set for the next 25 years.
“I don’t think any of the artists there really knew who Ani was and she blew them out of the water,” recalls Nora Guthrie. “After her first song, I remember running back to my stage managers and assistant, and I said, ‘Grab every artist and have them come up here in the wings and listen to this woman’ because she was so phenomenal.”
DiFranco’s performance marked the start of a special night that saw Billy Bragg debut two new songs he wrote for the upcoming “Mermaid Avenue” album. Ramblin Jack Elliot performed Guthrie classics “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” and “1913 Massacre.” Arlo Guthrie delivered a mix of his songs along with his father’s. Pete Seeger drew a standing ovation for his rendition of Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby.”
Of course, the night’s major draw was Springsteen who kept things very traditional during his six-song set. He opened with a fiery acoustic version of Guthrie’s “Tom Joad,” followed by “Blowin’ Down the Road,” “Oklahoma Hills” (alongside Ely, Arlo Guthrie and Elliott) and “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” Springsteen even got a kick out of performing “Car Song,” a theme Springsteen is very familiar with.
The night concluded with an epic encore featuring all of the night’s performers on Guthrie’s “Hard Travelin’,” “‘Til We Outnumber ‘Em” and “This Land is Your Land.”
“Woody’s music, especially when you have Pete Seager on stage, is all about collaboration and collective singing,” says Santelli. “I can still get chill bumps just thinking about it — when everybody got out there — and how great it was, because it was a celebration of not only American music camaraderie, but it put the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on a different level.”
Pastures a Plenty
The first American Music Masters was a huge success for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the artists involved and The Woody Guthrie archives.
DiFranco’s career would reach its mainstream peak in the years that followed. She would later release “’Til We Outnumber ‘Em,’ a collection of the performances from the tribute concert on her label “Righteous Babe Records.”
Springsteen’s career would enter an exciting new chapter in the 21st century with a series of successful albums that included “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” featuring 13 covers of songs made popular by Pete Seeger. In 2021, Springsteen became the eighth recipient of the Woody Guthrie Prize, honoring artists who speak out for social justice.
Nora Guthrie released two volumes of “Mermaid Avenue” along with a box set compiling outtakes. In 2013, the Woody Guthrie Center opened in Tulsa, Okla.
“The event was pivotal,” Guthrie reveals. “I was trying to connect the past with the future and creating that week, and it being a success put me on this track that I’m on, connecting the lessons and the teachings of the elders, and moving them into the new.”
Santelli remained at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame until 2000 when he became the CEO of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. He would go on to become the founding executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles in 2017.
Santelli also produced two Grammy-nominated historical albums for Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and co-authored “Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom” with Nora Guthrie in 2021.
The American Music Masters remained a fixture at the Rock & Roll Hall of fame for 20 years, going on to celebrate the likes of Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and others. The Rock Hall debuted Rock Hall Honors, a retooling of its Music Masters series, in 2019. The museum says it hopes to continue with a similar showcase in the future.
“The first American Music Masters was the first big event that we did,” says Santelli. “It proved that an artist of Springsteen’s caliber would come to Cleveland. That show was really a turning point because it proved we could put on first-class programs and multi-day celebrations of music, its history and culture.”