Singer-songwriter, music collector and longtime friend of Swallow Hill Barry Ollman has been involved in our organization for decades. Here’s what he had to say about growing up around music, becoming friends with Graham Nash, collecting original letters from the likes of Woody Guthrie, Buddy Holly and Martin Luther King, Jr., and why funding music education is critical for our collective future.
You’re a singer/songwriter and guitarist. Have you played your whole life? Is it something you do full-time, or as a labor of love on the side of a different career?
My father was a Midwest correspondent for Billboard magazine from about 1950 to 1975. You know, the glory years! I grew up with the typewriter clacking away in the next room. Music was approved of and encouraged in our family. My oldest brother, Rick, was and is a classical and jazz guitarist, mostly jazz these days. He plays all sorts of horns as well and he’s a beautiful poet. Anyway, there were always a few guitars around. I have a picture of me playing guitar when I was 7. Then when I was 11, I saw the Beatles and everything opened up. I feel so lucky to have grown up tuned into the power of music. The first date I ever went on was to see Peter Paul and Mary! It’s been my passion my whole life, but of course when I wound up having kids I decided I’d better try to get it together [laughs]. Somehow I wound up in the business world – improbably, I was an institutional stockbroker for many years until I was able to walk away in 2005. I did manage to keep my hand in music and had a great band here in Denver, The Thrills, for about ten years in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I should add that during those business years I really struggled with writer’s block. I was living in so many different worlds that I think I just felt too self conscious to let my own music out. I really didn’t write much until the day after Obama got elected, and then a song, Blue Colorado, just poured out. I sent it to Graham Nash, who is a close friend, and he said, ‘I love it,’ and then a couple of months later I mentioned it to my old friend Nick Forster at E-Town who said I should come by and record it, which I did. Graham and Nick both helped me reopen those musical doors.
How’d you become friends with Graham Nash?
Among other things, of course, Graham is a longtime photographer and collector, and my brother, Arthur, ran the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego for 23 years. Arthur knew Graham through the museum and thought he and I would get along, so he connected us. Graham invited me backstage at Red Rocks for a CSN show in around 1990. We hit it off and have been quite close ever since. We’ve traveled and done a lot together over the years. He’s a lovely man and a musical giant and I’m very grateful to have his friendship. Incidentally, in August of ’69 when I was 16, a few of us drove from Milwaukee to Chicago to see CSNY’s first ever live performance just before they left for Woodstock. Joni Mitchell opened! Graham told me that a kid named Dan Fogelberg was there that night as well and that’s when Dan decided to make a life in music.
I liked your recent song Lockdown Times. Could you talk a bit about how COVID has impacted your relationship to music?
Thanks. My friend Garry Tallent of the E Street Band recorded that one with me last summer. I’m very involved with the Woody Guthrie Festival in Woody’s home town of Okemah, Oklahoma and I’ve given a talk there for the past 15 years called Collecting Woody. I have the largest private collection of Woody’s papers and artworks which I’ve built over the last 35 years or so. I had to give my talk online this year as everything was virtual. So many of my friends are musicians and they’ve all been locked down with the rest of us, unable to travel or tour and that makes everything so difficult. Musicians have got to make music and it turns out it helps to have an audience! Lately I’m starting to see people booking live shows again and I guess we’ll see how that goes…
When did you begin collecting and archiving music?
I was a collector when I was a kid because my dad, as a correspondent for Billboard magazine, used to bring me autographs of people he would meet. In November of 1964 he spent a couple hours with the Rolling Stones and brought their autographs home for me. I was so mad that he hadn’t pulled me out of school to carry his camera bag! I do have his photos of them that day. Over the years I wound up with a pretty nice little collection. Unfortunately, when my folks sold the house we grew up in, my box of autographs disappeared. I always imagined that someone stole it at the garage sale. My mom is nearly 102 and I still ask her where my Stones autographs are! The silver lining was, all that loss freaked me out so much that I felt like I wanted to start tracking down that sort of memorabilia in a bigger way. That was in the early 80’s. Digital stuff may be collectible now, but I’ve always collected paper. I know… it’s going out of style, but that’s what makes it so rare and wonderful. I have papers from Lincoln, Gandhi, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, the Beatles, Hendrix, Civil Rights and Women’s Movement material, classical composers, scientists and on and on. I regularly lend stuff to institutions like the Grammy Museum, the Morgan Library and the Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie Centers in Tulsa. I’ve also worked with many authors and researchers on their books, mostly Guthrie, Dylan, and folk or rock related subjects. It’s been amazing to get to work with all of these great archives and authors.
How did you first discover Swallow Hill?
I started going to the Denver Folklore Center around 1973. Nick Forster worked on my Guild D-40 in 1975. Harry Tuft was like the Mayor of 17th St! I bought strings from Tim O’Brien! It was obviously the center of a lot of intense musical passion for so many people. And then it morphed into Swallow Hill. I’ve always tried to help out where I could along the way.
What is it about Swallow Hill that makes it an important Denver institution, in terms of what it offers to the community?
There’s always a tribe of people who identify as musicians or serious music lovers in any community and I feel fortunate to have a home base in Swallow Hill. There’s such a huge amount of energy generated around people’s love for live music. And on a whole other level, we’ve all seen the catastrophe that is the loss of music education in our schools. Swallow Hill has done a great job at filling that gap – making the ability to play music accessible. Swallow Hill is unique in our community in that role of providing educational opportunities for young and old, but especially kids who really don’t have music as part of their education. So much has been cut, so much of the stuff we took for granted when we were young is just not part of kids’ lives now. And we don’t even know yet what the implications of that are. What was Steve Jobs obsessed with? Music. And he created Apple. So much inventiveness comes from giving young people permission to use both sides of their brains. That’s what we’re doing by supporting Swallow Hill, and it’s hugely important.
This interview was conducted and written by Megan Feldman of CenterTable.