Swallow Hill Music has a long and impressive history as Denver’s home of roots music: folk, bluegrass, old-time, acoustic, Americana and beyond. The concept grew out of the idea that roots music concerts, and teaching enthusiasts how to play that music, could be combined into a nonprofit association. Harry Tuft, inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame presented by Comfort Dental in 2011, saw such an organization as a way to bring the best in folk artists to Colorado, while Julie Davis, a well-respected autoharp performer and teacher, added a music school to the equation. Swallow Hill was established in 1979 at Tuft’s Denver Folklore Center in the Swallow Hill neighborhood just east of downtown.
Now celebrating its fortieth anniversary, Swallow Hill has grown to become the nation’s second-largest roots music concert organization and music school. But the road to success was not always easy: As with the roots music it celebrates, interest in the organization suffered in the 1980s.
Early Roots of Swallow Hill Music
By the 1990s, though, a permanent home had been established at 1905 South Pearl Street. Under the Swallow Hill Music board and executive director Seth Weisberg (1987-1995), class enrollment swelled to 2,700, with Rebecca Micklitch as the school director. The number of concerts grew to almost 100 a year, with Meredith Carson as concert director.
Twenty years ago, under the leadership of Chris Daniels (executive director from 1995 to 2000, and inducted into the Hall in 2013), Swallow Hill moved into its current location at Yale Avenue and South Lincoln Street. But that was only the beginning of the organization’s real growth spurt.
Performances and Community Outreach
Swallow Hill Music now has a combined concert attendance well over 60,000 annually, and produces about 250 shows in the three concert halls at the group’s home at 71 East Yale Avenue, as well as the Denver Botanic Gardens series at York Street and at Chatfield Farms, the Oriental Theater and Four Mile Historic Park, to name a few venues. Today Swallow Hill Music School hosts 64,000 student visits each year, with seventy teachers who provide private lessons and classes for everyone from toddlers to seniors at the Yale Avenue location and satellite locations in the Highland and Lowry neighborhoods. And Swallow Hill’s Community Outreach programs create more than 75,000 music connections annually. These programs in Denver’s underserved communities bring music education and experiences into pre-schools, K-12 schools, libraries and senior centers, working with more than 200 schools and organizations across the Front Range.
Swallow Hill Music has won awards that include accolades from the El Pomar Foundation, the Mayor and Governor’s awards for excellence in the arts, and countless Best of Denver honors from Westword. Musicians and music fans around the country continue to heap praise on the organization.
Swallow Hill Testimonials
Says Mary Flower, award-winning blues guitarist, vocalist and a founding member of the Mother Folkers,”For me, Swallow Hill has been an enormous network of friends who have grown together since they worked behind the counter in their early twenties at the old Denver Folklore Center.”
According to Paul Kashmann, guitar player, former Swallow Hill board member and current Denver City Council representative, “There’s really nothing like Swallow Hill in that you can literally reach out and touch the performers, if you don’t pass them in the hall before the show.”
Folksinger Tish Hinojosa, spokesperson for the National Association of Bilingual Education, adds, “It’s wonderful to see them growing. It’s an encouraging sign for the power of acoustic music. The intellectual-circle places, like the Northeast, have ongoing music venues that have always presented acoustic and folk music. But in the heart of the country, it’s a little more rare. It’s great that Denver has one.”
Paul Lhevine, the current CEO of Swallow Hill Music, is effusive in his excitement about the organization’s potential. “The future looks ever more promising,” he says. “We continue to attract new audiences while paying homage to our historical roots – we’ve found ways to stay relevant in a quickly changing music scene. Our additional locations are proof-positive that folks want music in their neighborhoods, and our Community Outreach programs are ensuring that everyone in our community has an opportunity to learn and grow through music.”
Swallow Hill Music’s Induction into CMHOF
From the early dreams of a group of dedicated musicians at Harry Tuft’s Denver Folklore Center to the award-winning arts organization that it has become, Swallow Hill is one of the most vibrant music resources in not just Colorado but the nation. The Colorado Music Hall of Fame presented by Comfort Dental is proud to induct Swallow Hill Music into the Hall of Fame. We are honored to celebrate the contribution of all the performers, teachers, volunteers, members and supporters who make Swallow Hill an essential part of this state’s music history.
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Roman Zaiets