This is a story about a man, Harry Tuft, and the store he established in 1962, the Denver Folklore Center. It is thought by many that he, and the shop he started, have had a significant effect on the growth of acoustic music in Denver and the surrounding region.
Over the years, Harry Tuft has performed with, presented, jammed and/or spent time with, many well-known folks who have visited the store, including Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips,, Arlo Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotton, Muddy Waters, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Geoff Muldaur, John Phillips (The Mamas & The Papas), Leo Kotke and dozens more of music’s most notable performers.
Swallow Hill Music Association, a fine music school and concert venue, has a performance hall bearing his name and he was recently inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.
A talented musician in his own right with a still-clear tenor voice, Harry has had a long performing career. It started with Sunday afternoon song circles at the Gilded Cage in his hometown of Philadelphia, and eventually led to performances in small and large venues around the country.
For over 40 years he has teamed with friends Jack Stanesco and Steve Abbott as part of Grubstake, the folk trio. Together they have appeared at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and at Red Rocks, opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willie Nelson.
Back in 1961 Harry rented a space at 608 E. 17th Ave. next door to a coffee shop called the Green Spider, for $55 a month. “I drove for Yellow Cab at night and remodeled during the day. We used old redwood (before it was cool), which we got for about 10 cents a board foot.”
The Denver Folklore Center opened to the public on March 12, 1962. As with most small businesses, the early days of the Folklore Center were touch and go but with the help of friends who had more business acumen than he, Tuft persevered. By 1971, the Folklore Center was becoming an institution. “We were really all there was between Chicago and L.A.,” said Tuft. “Any performer who was passing through would come to see what was going on.”
Harry eventually took over the entire strip of storefronts along 17th Avenue, from the alley to the corner, making room for his growing inventory of new and used fretted instruments, a record store, a music school, a repair shop, “hippie clothes”, a bead store and a concert hall.
While the original idea of the Folklore Center was to provide Tuft with a living, the business grew to become much more than a simple economic generator, providing the nurturing ground for music-lovers and makers of music alike.
In 1993 Harry opened the doors at the current location of the Denver Folklore Center at 1893 S. Pearl St.
“I’ve been so fortunate over the years, and I have so many people to thank,” said Tuft. “When I started out, 27-year-olds didn’t own businesses; now they own Facebook. Some of my strongest supporters have been the ‘guys’ of Hot Rize, who got together around the shop. Charles Sawtelle was a great asset as manager of the instrument shop, and a founding member until his death some years ago. Blues musician, Otis Taylor gives the shop credit for inspiring his musical career, as he travels nationally and internationally.”
As for the future, Harry plans on continuing to make and facilitate music. He hosts song circles every Monday evening at the shop, and a monthly Hootenanny at Swallow Hill. He continues to perform both solo and with Grubstake, and recently released his second solo album, Harry Tuft & Friends: Treasures Untold, accompanied by a who’s who of Colorado musicians, many of whom are longtime members of the Folklore Center family. Most days he can be found at the shop on South Pearl, especially in the afternoons. He welcomes visitors, who have become friends as well.
Excerpts from A Short History of The Denver Folklore Center by Paul Kashmann and Harry Tuft