Harry Tuft, Godfather of Denver Folk, Is Now Free to Be a Folk Musician Himself

At eighty years old, Harry Tuft is finally getting the time and opportunity to do what he came to Colorado to do in the first place in 1960: play music. Not that Tuft hasn't played music all along and put out albums, but this is the first time he's been free to do so without the weight of running a store, leading the local chapter of the musicians' union, or, in years gone by, booking acts like Joan Baez and arranging for her to meet the Beatles when the Fab Four played Red Rocks. He basically served as the de facto godfather of Denver Folk through his establishment of the Denver Folklore Center in 1962 and was instrumental in founding Swallow Hill. If Tuft hadn't left Philadelphia to move here, inspired by stories of the opportunities to play live out west, Denver music and culture would be immeasurably diminished.

In August 2016, Tuft sold the Denver Folklore Center to his friend Saul Rosenthal and business associate Claude Brachfeld, who intend to keep the local institution going. “In January 2015, I decided I was going to sell the store or liquidate it in that year,” says Tuft. “At that time, Saul Rosenthal was chairman of the board at Swallow Hill. I told him that plan and he called me a couple of days later and said he couldn't imagine the Folklore Center going away and wanted to see what he could do. Being involved with a guitar shop was on Saul's bucket list. So he and Claude Brachfeld were able to make an offer that worked okay for me. That frees me up to do more what I wanted to do in the first place, which was play music.”

Tuft will get to do just that this Saturday night at Baur's Restaurant and Listening Lounge.

“I'm not a writer as such,” Tuft continues. “I do what these days they call covers. I would call them OPS's: Other People's Songs. I'm still learning stuff, and [at] this concert, I'm going to do two songs by a fellow named Ben Bullington. I did a jam at the store for twenty years, and some of the people I'm still in touch with are writers, [and] I do some of their songs. I still do traditional stuff, and I recently did a jam at Swallow Hill and performed 'All Along the Watchtower,' by Bob Dylan, and 'Bartender's Blues,' made popular by George Jones but written by James Taylor, and an old Jesse Fuller song called 'San Francisco Bay Blues.' That's the kind of mix I'm apt to do. I've done R&B with Chris Daniels, and last year I did an unaccompanied song by Blind Willie Johnson called 'Nobody's Fault but Mine' and I paired it with a Staples Singers song called 'Get Right Church, Let's Go Home.' So I'm sort of unabashed and unafraid at this point. In terms of a working folksinger from the revival, I may be the oldest one except for maybe Frank Hamilton, who started the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and he's 83.”

Harry Tuft and Friends, Saturday, November 12, 8 p.m., Baur's Restaurant and Listening Lounge, 303-615-4000, tickets start at $20
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.