Music America Exhibit at LBJ Presidential Library

“Music America” Curator Bob Santelli


Bob Santelli was named the Executive Director of the Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music at Monmouth University in October 2022. He was tasked with curating a touring exhibit exemplifying American music: its history, evolution, and impact. Moreso, he wanted to illustrate the threads that tie every era of American music together. The goal was to have the exhibit ready to hit the ground running by 2026 to commemorate our country’s 250th birthday.

That timeline changed when the LBJ Presidential Library said they wanted it first and in 2024. Santelli and his team rose to the occasion, and together with Santelli’s decades of curatorial experience (including the GRAMMY museum) and a gilded rolodex perfect for outfitting the exhibit, Music America is here now. This is the third exhibit Santelli’s curated for the library. He was the brain behind the Beatles and Motown exhibits showcased at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2015 and 2019 respectively.

When you walk in, the thesis of the exhibit is made apparent with a video showing different experts and authorities on American Music answering poignant questions about what American music is, its impact, etc. You then turn around to 1620 and the Book of Psalters, or Psalms, brought over by the pilgrims. You continue through the next couple of centuries until you get to 1877 with Thomas Edison and his invention of the cylinder phonograph, or his “talking machine.” You can put on headphones and literally hear him reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” the first piece of recorded audio in history.

At this point, the exhibit starts to dissect time a bit more and you begin to go through the inception of regional music, Black American music, and music as a tool to expose the cruel reality of American culture. At this point, you get to Woody Guthrie’s fiddle, inscribed, rustically, with “this gun killed a fascist.”
From there we get more into the 20th century, and the exhibit breaks down time even more. Pieces from wardrobes, journals, personal letters, and instruments from America’s most famous musicians are on display. You’ll learn that “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written as a feminist ode to the composer’s wife and women wanting to be seen in spaces and activities deviating from the “norm.”

From Billie Holiday’s mink stole and Ella Fitzgerald’s cabaret card, to one of Elvis’s jumpsuits and Prince’s cloud guitar to Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” dress next to the lab coat Kurt Cobain wore on Nirvana’s 1991 European tour and Chuck D’s hat and turntable. And it ends with iconic outfits from Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. In the interview above, you’ll hear Bob talk about everything from how he and his team got this exhibit off the ground in record time to why it was so important to him and the LBJ Presidential Library to have Music America debut there.

Music America is on display through August 11th at the LBJ Presidential Library on the UT campus. For hours, admission, and even more information on the library, see here.

Ella Fitzgerald’s NYC “Cabaret and Public Dance Hall Employee’s Identification Card” issued April 14, 196

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