A BRIEF HISTORY OF SWALLOW HILL MUSIC
Let’s take a trip through time from the 1960s to today.
Over the years, Swallow Hill Music has changed locations four times. In 1980, it had just three classrooms and an office. Today it has expanded to 18 classrooms, a recording studio, a café, offices and two concert halls. In 1994, Seth Weisburg, a former Executive Director, described Swallow Hill Music as a “musical community center.” As we celebrate our 34st anniversary, the voices of Swallow Hill remind us of a rich history and a promising future.
1960s. The Roots of Swallow Hill Music
Swallow Hill Music’s roots are shared with the Denver Folklore Center (DFC). Harry Tuft established it in 1962 in the Swallow Hill neighborhood of Denver. It eventually expanded to fill most of a city block. The DFC held an instrument store, repair shop, music school, concert hall, record store and bead store.
Folk musicians in Denver for a performance would stop at the Denver Folklore Center for supplies, visit Harry and often put on an informal show. Among the artists who passed through the DFC were Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Doc Watson and the Reverend Gary Davis.
1970′s. Swallow Hill Music is Founded
The Denver Folklore Center Concert Hall was founded in September 1971. Some of the performers who made appearances in the hall include Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Elizabeth Cotton, Taj Mahal, Utah Phillips, Katy Moffatt and Bette White. In 1976 the Rocky Mountain News described the Denver Folklore Center as “something with a personality, an identity, all its own … a showcase for local talent which respected that talent … a business … operated on a personal, friendly basis … a place of good reputation among artists in many other cities.”
By the late 1970s, however, the Swallow Hill neighborhood was in decline and financial concert hall losses forced Harry Tuft to rethink the future of the Folklore Center. Harry and many of the Center’s supporters decided to create a non-profit organization to preserve folk music and provide a venue for performances, and Swallow Hill Music Association was born.
February 1979 saw the formation of the first Board of Directors: Geoff Withers, Roz Brown, Emmie Hewitt, Bill McCreary, Tom McMillan, Elissa Meyer and Larry Shirkey. In March, the newly formed Swallow Hill Music Association took over the concert hall and music school from the DFC.
1980s. Swallow Hill Music’s Early Years
The 1980s saw Swallow Hill Music through many beginnings. The Denver Folklore Center and Swallow Hill Music Concert Hall moved to 440 South Broadway in April 1980. The building was an old two-story house with a business storefront tacked on. The DFC’s store and repair shop were on the first floor–three lesson rooms, an office and restrooms. Unable to find a suitable concert hall space at a reasonable price, Swallow Hill Music arranged concerts at various locations in the Denver area.
Throughout the 1980s, the official newsletter called Simple Gifts was published, Swallow Hill Music put on their first student-teacher concert, and the music school closed and reopened. Swallow Hill Music Association celebrated its 10th anniversary and found its first permanent home on Pearl Street.
1990s. Growing Pains
Swallow Hill Music entered the 1990s with its first capital campaign to remodel the new Pearl Street building. Projects to improve the facility were underway and the Swallow Hill Choir was formed. But among these exciting events, there was also tragedy. The unexpected death of young student and performer Stephanie Sibson in 1990 was a great loss for Swallow Hill Music. Her family and friends worked to improve the library and dedicated it in her memory-The Sibson Library, now temporarily located in the Café.
The 1990s brought the beginning of the Thursday night jam sessions and the first Folkathon, a “non-stop, three-day folk orgy,” named by Harry Tuft. It included fine local talent, food and crafts, children games, all-night jam sessions, and dance demonstrations. Swallow Hill Music also opened a record store featuring folk and traditional music recorded by Colorado artists.
Swallow Hill Music programs were booming, but the school’s outgrowth was outpacing available space. Faculty and students had to be turned away and programs were put on hold. By 1995, the Board of Directors and the staff weighed their options: remodel the Pearl Street building, which would still not provide the amount of space needed, or look for a new location. In 1997, the location for Swallow Hill Music’s current home at 71 East Yale Avenue was found, and the new facility was opened to celebrate Swallow Hill Music’s 20th anniversary in 1999.
2000s. Ever Expanding
Many people have contributed to Swallow Hill Music’s success. In particular, Julie Davis believed so much in Swallow Hill Music’s mission that in 1984 she became instrumental in reviving the music school, directing it from 1986 to 1995, in addition to her teaching duties. In 2002, the school was officially named after her. She has continued to be a member of the faculty to this day. Now the Julie Davis Music School at Swallow Hill Music provides a valuable and affordable educational resource to the community, hosting over 27,000 student visits in 450 music and performance classes, and reaching over 15,000 students through educational outreach programs.
Swallow Hill Music achieved the coveted SCFD Tier II status in 2004, and is now at the same level of the Colorado Symphony, Opera Colorado or the Colorado Ballet. In 2010, Swallow Hill Music partnered with the Denver Botanic Gardens as its new concert promotions partner for the booking and production of the Denver Botanic Gardens summer concert series. Both of these achievements have made a huge difference in our ability to deliver on our mission.
From these humble beginnings, Swallow Hill Music has grown to become the second largest roots, folk and acoustic music school and concert organization in the United States.