On the folk scene, one way you can separate the newer singer-songwriter fans from the well-rooted moldy figs is to play a song. If everyone in the room sings along, they probably belong to the latter group. And if you do it, too, chances are you're old enough to remember the days of hootenannies. Harry Tuft does more than remember them; he relives them. One of Denver's most enduring folk figures, Tuft still sells instruments the old-timey way at his Denver Folklore Center, a symbol and vestige of different, less commercially driven times. And once a month at the Swallow Hill Music Hall, he leads an authentic pay-or-play hoot, where musicians can try out their licks and the rest of the folks can hum along.
"It's not really a Nineties kind of thing," Tuft says with a glimmer of amusement. Clearly, there's no point in trying to glamorize the experience, so Tuft, a practical man, doesn't. "In Denver in the Sixties and Seventies, the hoot was held for less professional folks," he begins. "It was a time when there was a lot of group singing and a lot of getting together to swap songs, and the idea of the hoot got developed at that time as a group singing event. In those days, you didn't hear as many original songs as such. There were people writing their own songs, taking their lead from the first of the singer-songwriters--Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Tom Paxton and so on. Most would come and sing a traditional folk song, very often one other folks would know.
"In those days," he continues, "there were few places to do it and even fewer with a Friday night devoted to it, because Fridays were the money nights. For that reason, they were quite popular and well-attended. They had an atmosphere of meeting like-minded people. It was a nice, safe, friendly place to go, where you never knew who'd show up."
In more recent times, Tuft notes, the hoot tradition has given way to more distinct channels of expression: open stages and jams. "The open stage is a place where you sign up, do your stuff and leave, and then you hop on over to the next one, where you sign up and do your stuff again," he says. "The jam is done in the round--it's more of a song swap." But as the split occurred, ordinary folks looking for a place to sing "This Land Is Your Land" took a backseat to the experimenting musicians.
About a year ago, though, Tuft decided to revive the hootenanny. "We used to call it 'pay or play,'" he says. "I thought, 'Well, let's do that.' They evolved out of an idea to provide a summer Friday-night alternative. They were so successful that they continued on after the summer; it was just one of those spontaneous ideas."
Tuft says there's not a lot to distinguish his modern-day hoots from open stages except that in running them, he encourages participation from everyone. "I try to create an atmosphere where people will feel comfortable in playing whatever they play," he says. "I have often thought that inside of everybody who plays a guitar--even someone who won't acknowledge it to other people, who only plays in the corner of a dark room--there's that idea of performance. If I can help encourage that and, in the process, keep the music that I love--the old music--alive, that's fulfilling."
In that spirit, the hoot caters to the little people--the ones who usually look up at the stage. "It's a small experience; it's not a large experience," Tuft concedes. "I just felt there was a place for it."
Old-Fashioned Hootenanny With Harry Tuft. 8 p.m. May 8, Swallow Hill Music Hall, 1905 South Pearl Street, $3 (participating musicians free), 777-1003.