Home All American Roots Music: Building Positive Communities Through Music Appreciation

American Roots Music: Building Positive Communities Through Music Appreciation

written by Elaine O'Brien 31 March 2011

Elaine O'Brien, PhD, MAPP '08, is a positive psychology, fitness leadership, positive health promotion, movement science, aging, and well-being speaker, author, trainer, thought leader, people/project manager, educator, and consultant. Elaine creates programs promoting proactive positive health/fitness, and optimal performance. Elaine presents internationally and online. She advances health, fitness, and flourishing by inspiring people to move more and to find both enjoyment and meaning in motion via PEP: Positive Exercise Practices. Elaine's website.  Full bio. Elaine's articles are here.

“Man is music.” ~ Dr. Martin Seligman

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” ~ Nietzsche

New Harmonies

This year Asbury Park, New Jersey in the United States has been chosen as a site for the Smithsonian Institution roots music exhibition through April 17, 2011. This unique retrospective is the hallmark of a yearlong celebration of Asbury Park’s vibrant musical heritage. Sponsored by the Smithsonian and the New Jersey for the Humanities Council, the New Harmonies program honors American Roots Music (ARM) via city-wide concerts, art, lectures, films, tours, educational programs, musical history walks, and dances. This commemoration is breathing life and the arts into this seashore community.

American Roots Music

Robert Santelli, music journalist, historian, and executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles is an explorer of American musical heritage. Co-author of American Roots Music, Santelli explains how growing up, he enjoyed the physical, emotional, and sensory experience of going to a record store, sorting through the bins, and buying a record. He talks about opening a record album – the smell and sound of tearing the plastic wrap, seeing the album cover art, the touch of vinyl, and enjoying the sounds of music. Santelli discusses the benefits and enrichment of live music as a shared communal experience, something he wants to perpetuate.

Santelli explains how music, as we know it in the 21st century, is at a crossroads due to the emergence of the iPod, ear buds, technology, Internet, iTunes, YouTube.com, and other social media. Santelli is dedicated to promoting musical appreciation, enrichment, and musical preservation for future generations to enjoy. He is concerned about the lack of commitment toward the value of music education in schools.

Music and Appreciation of Cultural Roots

Banjo Playing

Banjo Playing courtesy of Beinecke Library

Tapping into our souls, music transcends economics and unifies us as human beings, according to Santelli. He explains the significance of American Roots Music (ARM) and how it affects us today. Historically, immigrants brought their folk songs to America. Santelli considers this a gift to music, especially in the 20th century. Forms like Ragtime, Blues, Hillbilly music, Swing, Zydeco, Gospel, Cajun, Rhythm and Blues, Motown, Tejano, Soul, Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Jazz, Bluegrass, and Country music all came into being in the U.S. within a 100-year span. “Arguably,” Santelli asserts, “we had here the greatest repository of the world’s treasures of diverse musical genres within that time span.”

From this blending of cultures, the ARM heritage emerged. “This music gave a new canvas to tell us who we are (as Americans) in our experience, as individuals and a nation.” Santelli believes that through music, “We can accept one another for our differences, and this is embedded into our overall heritage.”

Music is ingrained in our cultures. Santelli explains, “Music touches people every day. Music is experienced in our souls whether we are young, old, rich, or poor. Music can define who we are, reflect our personal values and our selves.”

Music Has No Boundaries and Helps Us Endure

Santelli believes that what made the 20th century music in America so great was the sadness and oppression behind it. He states, “Black slaves came to America with only their bodies, but had music in their hearts and minds.” In West Africa, music is related to everything a person does during the day. Santelli believes that “From the white side, balladry, and rhythmic European and African music overlapped in churches and in society.” Over time, these music styles were interwoven because of appreciation for our different musical heritages.

Greetings from Asbury Park

Evolving forms included the Blues, which derived from work songs sung by slaves from Africa, as well as the rhythm and harmony of the songs of people in chain gangs. Jon Haidt and colleagues discuss the concept of communitas, moving together rhythmically and in harmony, sharing in a common community experience.

Santelli believes Asbury Park is a microcosm of America. Santelli maintains Rock and Rock, “softened the racial divide in the U.S.” and is represented in most walks of life. He gives the example of the time when racial tensions and violence erupted in the 1960s in Asbury Park, and how musicians, Black, White, and Hispanic, played music together in harmony. Music can and does profoundly affect positive social and political change.

Building Positive Communities Through Music

All proceeds from ARM musical events benefit the Asbury Park Oral History Project, an initiative to collect the inspiring personal stories of local musicians, songwriters, and people who are music industry legends. In addition, this yearlong celebration is enhancing the vitality, kinship, commerce, and musical literacy of the Asbury Park community.

Other places in the world where music is making a difference include:

    Images of St Ethelburga's

    Images of St Ethelburga's

  • St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, a model of resilience in London. The goal of St. Ethelburga’s is “To inspire and equip people to practice reconciliation and peace-making in their own communities and lives.”

    Surviving the Great Fire of London (1666) and the Blitz (1941-1943), the building of St Ethelburga was devastated by a massive IRA bomb in 1993. A testament to the power of positive social action and a multi-faith openness, St Ethelburga’s has a flourishing world music program that exemplifies the power of story, song, and humanity.

  • Cellos at El Sistema

    Cellos at El Sistema

  • El Sistema, Venezuela: transforming lives through music in Venezuela and beyond. El Sistema is a music education program in Venezuela that was founded 35 years ago by Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu. Writing about El Sistema, Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell shares, “The organization and its many nuclei orchestras now teach ensemble music to 300,000 of Venezuela’s poorest children, demonstrating how community partnerships in the arts can positively change lives and build positive communities.”

    Dr. Price-Mitchell explains that the El Sistema system is firmly grounded in philosophical, psychological, and sociological theory and research. She states, “The philosophical frameworks of Paulo Freire and Lev Vygotsky guide its dual emphasis on comprehensive education of the individual and the collective nature of learning. Psychological theories on self-efficacy, scaffolding, and modeling inform its teaching methodologies, connecting how learning music follows a similar trajectory to advancing in other arenas of life.”

    She continues, “The partnership between teachers, musicians, politicians, community leaders, families, and the public is also aimed at creating social change. In Venezuela, 60% of the children in El Sistema programs were at risk of dropping out of school, or were victims of family violence or social neglect. Through its Social Action Center and numerous supporting institutions, El Sistema has improved the lives of marginalized young people throughout Venezuela.” The aim is to replicate El Sistema in the U.S. and in other areas around the world.




Haidt, J., Seder, J. P. & Kesebir, S. (2008). Hive Psychology, Happiness, and Public Policy. Journal of Legal Studies, 37.

Price-Mitchell, M. (2011). Quotations are from an email communication to the Friends-of-PP listserv. For more information, visit Dr. Price-Mitchell’s site.

Santelli, R. & George-Warren, H. (2002). American Roots Music. Harry N. Abrams.

Springsteen, B. (1973). Greetings from Asbury Park. Music CD.

PBS, American Roots Music Into the Classroom: Tapping the Roots of American Music, A Teacher’s Guide.

Asbury Park Music

St. Elburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace

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Scott Asalone 3 April 2011 - 11:49 am

You captured the spirit beautifully! Living in AP I never thought about how music unites us. Yet, you are right. From the street musicians, to the nightclubs, bars and music venues the community comes together for music. Some of the newer venues, like Chico’s Jazz club and the Blues Bar are packing people in every night (including Bruce Springsteen who was there the other night). Thanks for connecting the dots to Positive Psychology for me.

Elaine O'Brien 3 April 2011 - 2:03 pm

Speaking of community building, you are doing just that with your beautiful AP bookstore, WORDS! Thanks for writing and for your vision in creating a wonderful literary space. You are a key contributor to Asbury Park’s resurgence, cultural growth and thriving Cookman Avenue. I appreciate you, and your inspiration. Elaine


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