Harry Tuft


A man and his guitar (and briefcase)

Harry Tuft is a folk-music renaissance man. He sold gear to entertainers at his beloved Denver Folklore Center; promoted shows at venues small and large; and was a gifted performer as well.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1935, Tuft earned a philosophy degree from Dartmouth College and learned how to play guitar as a way of participating in the folk boom that shook up the Eisenhower era. He made his first visit to New York City in 1960 with his good friend Dick Weissman, a fellow Colorado Music Hall of Famer; a stop at Izzy Young’s New York Folklore Center offered him a preview of his life’s work.

Tuft moved to the Mile High City in December 1961, and the next year, he opened the Denver Folklore Center at 608 East 17th Avenue. The Center sold instruments, offered lessons and provided a performance area inspired by Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.

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The Folklore Mecca

Within a few years, the Center had become a mecca for the national folk revival, with Hall of Famer Judy Collins and other notables trading riffs in the warm and welcoming setting. A young Bob Dylan even took a few guitar tutorials in the space.

The store’s legend was further burnished by the Denver Folklore Center Catalogue and Almanac of Folk Music, which merged a mail-order catalog with a compendium of information regarding folk-friendly retail outlets, manufacturers and music festivals. The resource, arguably the first of its kind, was well received at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival and helped give the Denver Folklore Center a national reputation among musicians and fans.

As business thrived, Tuft used his impeccable connections to organize concerts by some of the biggest names in folk and acoustic music. He promoted Red Rocks concerts headlined by Joan Baez (she appeared in 1964, two days after the Beatles) and Pete Seeger (who was paired with Arlo Guthrie). Tuft also handled a sold-out appearance at Denver’s Auditorium Arena for the Mamas & the Papas. The likes of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Doc Watson wowed Denver music lovers under Tuft’s auspices, too.

The main vehicle for Tuft’s own musical forays was Grubstake, a trio that teamed him with Steve Abbott and Jack Stanesco. The three played some major shows, once opening at Red Rocks for Willie Nelson and a reunion of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But Tuft was just as happy strumming at the Denver Folklore Center as he was before a throng of thousands, since the music mattered most of all.

The Colorado Music Hall of Fame was proud to induct Harry Tuft on February 12, 2012

Bringing folk music to the people

Meanwhile, the Center proved to be an incubator for acts and artists who’d make an outsized imprint on Colorado. Hot Rize’s Pete Wernick and Charles Sawtelle met there, jamming with future cohorts Tim O’Brien, who taught lessons at the Center, and Nick Forster, an employee in the repair shop. Another regular customer was bluesman and Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee Otis Taylor, who would ride to the Center on a unicycle when he needed his banjo restrung. Even John Denver, The Hall’s inaugural inductee, bought guitar strings from Tuft.

In the mid-1970s, Tuft and several of his longtime Denver friends conceived the Music Association of Swallow Hill, a nonprofit organization, to promote concerts and educational services. Decades later, Swallow Hill is one of the largest enterprises of its kind in the United States, as well as a Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee.

Tuft moved the Denver Folkore Center to a space at 1893 South Pearl Street in 1993 and ran it there until 2016, when he retired and sold it to two longtime friends, Saul Rosenthal and Claude Brachfeld. The Denver City Council commemorated his achievements by declaring October 17, 2016 “Harry Tuft Day” – a most deserving tribute to a true musical icon.

-By Michael Roberts

Harry Tuft


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