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For many longtime staffers at the Swallow Hill Music Association, what's perhaps most unexpected about the organization's twentieth anniversary, which is being commemorated on Friday and Saturday, March 12 and 13, at its new 71 E. Yale headquarters, is the fact that it's happening at all. "We're really standing on the shoulders of a lot of other people," says Rebecca Miklich, director of the association's school. "There were a lot of people who ran things on a volunteer basis and kept things going when it looked like we might go under. You could look at 150 people or so, and without any one of them, Swallow Hill probably wouldn't exist--or it wouldn't look like it looks today."
There's no denying that Swallow Hill has blossomed into a most unlikely success story. Without bombast or ballyhoo, it's become the country's second-largest folk association, behind only Chicago's Old Town School. Plenty of much larger metropolises--including New York City and Boston, two of the longtime hotbeds of folk music--have nothing that approaches it. These days, most of its activities take place inside a 21,000-square-foot complex complete with two concert halls, fifteen classrooms and a 24-track recording studio that should be up and running shortly. Working within this structure is a fourteen-person staff supplemented by 53 teachers and more than 200 volunteers who help put on approximately 120 concerts per annum. It's a sprawling operation, yet executive director Chris Daniels, who fronts the band Chris Daniels and the Kings when he's not overseeing Swallow Hill's mini-empire, insists that the organization's mission remains much the same as it was two decades ago. "We started out to teach, present and preserve folk music and to make it a vital part of Denver's cultural life," he says. "And that's what we're still doing."
The history of Swallow Hill can be traced back to 1960 and the arrival in town of Harry Tuft, a musician who's a key part of the anniversary celebration. The Philadelphia-born Tuft, who is among the wits who refer to this period as "the great folk scare," traveled to the area to ski but soon fell in love with the Exodus, a club located in the basement of a resident's hotel at 1999 Lincoln. (It's now a parking lot.) A career launching pad for performers such as Judy Collins and the Smothers Brothers, the venue was owned by Hal Neustaedter, who suggested to Tuft that he open an instrument store in the tradition of New York's Folklore Center. Tuft ultimately decided that this was a good idea and moved to Denver in December 1961, arriving on the very day that Neustaedter died in a plane crash. Soon thereafter, Tuft secured a storefront on 17th Avenue, in an area of the city known as Swallow Hill (named for Denver builder George Swallow), and dubbed his creation the Denver Folklore Center. "I was 25 at the time and totally innocent of how to run a business," Tuft says from the Denver Folklore Center's current home, at 1893 South Pearl. "It was somewhere between bewildering and frightening--but apparently there was a need for it."
Indeed, the Folklore Center and the Green Spider, a Greenwich Village-inspired coffeehouse adjacent to it, became popular gathering places for area folkies. (Green Spider owner Don Lehn has another claim to fame: Tuft says he developed a psychedelic-light-display contraption that inspired a similar device that San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium made famous.) When the Green Spider and a successor closed, the Folklore Center expanded to fill half a block's worth of space with a concert hall, a record shop and a so-called "funk" store that became well known as the single best place in Colorado to buy beads. (Its owners, Bill and Irma Fleming, are still bead wholesalers.) Although folk music went out of favor in the mid-Seventies, the ancillary enterprises, including a small school, propped up the Folklore Center and the concert hall--at least for a while. But by 1979, Tuft realized that the only way to save the concept would be to turn it into a nonprofit concern. A series of brainstorming sessions involving Tuft and a handful of other folk aficionados led directly to the founding of the Swallow Hill Music Association.
For the next six years, Swallow Hill led a gypsy lifestyle, moving from 17th Avenue to Broadway to Capitol Hill before settling in an old grocery store at 1905 South Pearl in 1985. Two years later, the association's board of directors hired Seth Weisberg to serve as executive director. Weisberg spearheaded a successful campaign to buy the building on Pearl in 1990 and oversaw a slow but steady growth that was largely fueled by the popularity of the school. When she was hired as an assistant in 1990, current school director Miklich says, "Swallow Hill was a very different place. Everyone worked out of the same little office and answered the phones and swept the floors, and we only had five classrooms--and it wasn't long before five wasn't nearly enough. So we rented a place across the street for offices and extra classrooms. But in just a couple of years, we had to use the offices for classrooms, too."
When Weisberg left Swallow Hill in 1995 to join his family's business, Daniels was chosen to take his place, and he quickly realized that the Pearl Street buildings were inadequate to meet the association's needs. In 1997, for instance, more than $20,000 was paid to rent outside venues around town for concerts too big to be held at the 125-capacity on-site music hall. For this reason, a search was begun to find a larger building--and last year Swallow Hill settled on the Yale address, which previously housed the Front Range Center for Spiritual Growth. Meredith Carson, Swallow Hill's concert director, is especially pleased that the edifice contains two concert halls, with capacities of 130 and 300, respectively. "Now we can do 90 percent of our shows right here in our own place," she says. "That allows us to pour the money we would have spent on rent back into Swallow Hill, and it lets me bring in artists that might not have been economically feasible before."