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Swallow Hill's Hootenannies Have Found New Life Online

Harry Tuft performs at Swallow Hill's Zoom Hootenanny on February 5.
Harry Tuft performs at Swallow Hill's Zoom Hootenanny on February 5.
Claire Duncombe
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“Oh, Lord, I've got some singing to do,” Joe Hickerson croons comfortably, without instrumentation, from his kitchen table.

The fridge behind him is covered with photos and magnets, and he peers into his computer’s video camera toward an online audience of about seventy people attending a recent Friday night Old-Fashioned Hootenanny hosted by Swallow Hill Music over Zoom. He pauses to explain how he learned "Oh, Lord, I've Got Some Singing to Do" in 1957, during his days at Oberlin College.

He and the others gathering online for Swallow Hill's hootenannies are carrying on a tradition that began in 1962 at Harry Tuft’s Denver Folklore Center. Along with selling guitars, Tuft created a meeting ground for the folk-enthused that’s outlasted nearly six decades of changing venues and business iterations — with only the latest hootenannies taking place online. But despite the newfangled setup, sincerity shines through as musicians and students gather to share what they love.

This is how folk music goes electric again — and back to the homes it comes from. Folk has long been played on porches and wherever people can get together, explains Jim Broyles, a hootenanny attendee. “That’s really what I love — the authenticity of it. It’s not hugely professional. It’s just folks gathering together to sing."

Swallow Hill Music is built from this foundation of everyday people coming together to make music.

Jim Broyles credits the hootenanny community for helping him grow as a musician and composer.EXPAND
Jim Broyles credits the hootenanny community for helping him grow as a musician and composer.
Claire Duncombe

“We have created this environment where people come together and build community. Parents bring their kids, and kids bring their friends. There’s a feeling of togetherness,” says Swallow Hill CEO Paul Lhevine. The nonprofit hosts classes to further its mission of bringing “the joy of music to life every day.”

But last March, in-person classes and events were canceled. The organization had to lay off all of its teachers and half of its full-time administrators, and shut down all of its theaters. “It was depressing that we couldn’t all get together,” says Broyles, who’s been participating in Swallow Hill’s hootenannies since 2005.

At first, Tuft wasn’t sure he was going to move the hootenanny online. The monthly sing-along he hosts at Swallow Hill offers musicians the ability to lead a song while others join in with harmony or other instrumentation, and it’s always been done in person.

Hootenannies — or hoots, as they’re often called — rose to national popularity during the folk revival in New York City’s Greenwich Village. According to Woody Guthrie in a 1946 article in Time magazine, the term originated during a Lumber Workers’ Union songfest where a woman named Annie sang the loudest and became known as “Hootin’ Annie,” and the idea spread.

Outside Swallow Hill Music.EXPAND
Outside Swallow Hill Music.
Swallow Hill Music

Whether that’s how it really happened, by the time Tuft opened the Denver Folklore Center, he'd started advertising hootenannies as an opportunity to spread the gospel of folk through the newspapers and bring people into his little guitar store. It worked. The Sunday afternoon hoot became a Friday night hoot by the late 1960s, and then a Tuesday night hoot as the Folklore Center began to use Fridays to host traveling artists such as Elizabeth Cotton, Furry Lewis, Doc Watson and Mike Seeger.

In 1980, the Folklore Center closed down, and Swallow Hill Music was created by the center's members to keep the spirit of the shop, music school and venue alive. Tuft reopened the Denver Folklore Center from 1993 to 2016, but his song circles and hootenannies stayed closely tied to the Swallow Hill community.

“I’m basically a songster. I don’t write, but I love to make music for people, so I’m constantly looking for songs to add to my repertoire,” says Tuft.

The hoot is a place where musicians share and teach old and new songs. At the recent gathering, participants offered their own renditions of classics such as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and a traditional tune, “In the Pines.” Along with singing, they told stories of where or when they learned the song, or related particularly poignant memories.

Hoots offer a supportive environment for musicians of any level, Tuft explains.

The Denver Folklore Center's original locale, on East 17th Avenue.EXPAND
The Denver Folklore Center's original locale, on East 17th Avenue.
Larry Shirkey

The open-minded platform is what helped Broyles gain the confidence to begin performing in front of others. He started attending hoots after taking a songwriting class at Swallow Hill, and now he’s anticipating having his own folk opera, Davey, Do You See the Light?, performed in Daniels Hall on November 13.

“I have the hoot to thank — bringing song ideas to Harry and performing with other people,” Broyles says. “[It has] a good community feeling of like-minded people…a living-room atmosphere. I latched onto that.”

And these days, those who tune in to Swallow Hill virtual events are often literally playing and viewing from their living rooms. Still, transitioning online has not been easy.

“It took us about four months to get our online music school up and running,” Lhevine says. But now Swallow Hill hosts around 110 weekly virtual classes, which, along with workshops and private lessons, employ approximately 34 music teachers. The staff also livestreamed a total of 180 concerts last year. And while those numbers are nowhere near 2019's 9,220 hours of private lessons or 250 concerts with more than 71,000 total attendees, what’s exciting, Lhevine notes, is that Swallow Hill's geographic reach has expanded with its online presence.

Not only has the nonprofit found new students, but it can invite artists and teachers who don’t live in Denver to participate. “They stream from their kitchens, their attics, their home studios,” he says. “It’s absolutely overwhelming, the positivity.”

Before last summer, hootenannies were always held in person.
Before last summer, hootenannies were always held in person.
Claire Duncombe

Tuft has received similar feedback from hootenanny performers. It’s been so popular, he explains, that he’s had to limit the number of performances and ask some regular contributing artists to hold off at times so that others can play. But he’s also relished the opportunity to invite musician friends who live in other states to join. During the February 5 hoot, artists from L.A. and Arizona played alongside those from Denver.

“If you can ignore the fact that it’s technology, it can have a lot of the same feelings. It’s not the same kind of intimacy, but it’s togetherness facilitated through technology as much as being on the front porch,” says Broyles.

Although the online event runs pretty seamlessly these days, there was a learning curve for everyone at first. Setting up microphones to perform through Zoom isn’t as intuitive as playing acoustic instruments in a room. And there still are the occasional echoing between un-muted Zoom callers and those who miss the soundcheck and can’t get their levels quite right.

“I think everybody really does look forward to a time when there’s some actual physical place to do this,” Tuft says.

Fortunately, folk music has a knack for surviving; it evolves and changes, Broyles says. Swallow Hill itself only dedicates around 20 percent of its attention to traditionally defined folk music, Lhevine adds. The genre comprises blues, bluegrass, funk, rock and Americana, among other branches.

But no matter the style, the organization is dedicated to keeping music in the hands of the people. And that gives everyone an equal platform to share the love. It creates a community, explains Tuft, “something to hold on to — the circles, rings and ripples that start in the smallest places.”

Swallow Hill’s next virtual hootenannies will be held on March 5, April 2 and May 7.

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