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Hill teaches with picks 'n' grins
Asakawa, Special to the Rocky Mountain News
is ready for the first day of class.
in the school lobby, tuning his guitar and looking forward to a new
course with a world-class musician as an instructor.
The willowy melodies
of a flute duet waft down the stairs. Elsewhere in the building, a
visitor can hear a plinking piano behind one closed door, a beautiful
voice singing "What I Did for Love" behind another, a meticulous
mandolin melody from a third.
This is not public
school. It's not a university. Blackstone is enrolled in Guitar II-A
at the Swallow Hill Music Association.
It's a block
off South Broadway but light-years from the street's bustle. It hums
with the sounds of acoustic music and glows with a sense of community
built by people dedicated to an unplugged era. After 23 years, Swallow
Hill has grown into the country's second-largest folk organization
-- behind only Chicago's Old Town School -- and remains Colorado's
capital for classes, concerts and community events pertaining to folk
music, dance and culture.
For a novice
guitarist such as Blackstone, it was a natural place to go.
"I decided to
take lessons here because I heard it's a really good school, and they
teach you the proper way to play," says the 32-year-old customer service
Once the guitar
is tuned, Blackstone heads upstairs for his first lesson from Vicki
Taylor, a veteran blues, swing and jazz guitarist who teaches a number
of classes at Swallow Hill, from introductory courses to specialty
styles including bottleneck slide and swing.
the abilities of her six students, Taylor leads them in a patient
rendition of John Prine's Angel From Montgomery.
It's slow going,
but the students appreciate the tutoring, and pay close attention
to everything Taylor shows them from where the fingers go in playing
chords to the correct way to hold a flatpick.
executive director Jim Williams is grateful for novice students like
these. "Our intro classes are going gangbusters," Williams says. "We
can't offer enough beginning guitar, fiddle, mandolin, or whatever
At any time,
about 500 students are signed up for classes at Swallow Hill, and
many are eager to learn the basics of their instruments. "The school
is our bread and butter. It provides 65 percent of our income," Williams
The Swallow Hill
Music Association grew out of the original Folklore Center, a guitar
shop and folk music center opened in the 1960s by transplanted New
Yorker Harry Tuft. For years, the shop, then in the Swallow Hill neighborhood
at 17th Avenue and Pearl Street, hosted concerts, folk sings, hootenannies
and jams in a small room, until the association became a separate
has outgrown several homes since then, until purchasing a former church
just off South Broadway several years ago. Tuft still hosts a monthly
hootenanny at Swallow Hill in the "Tuft Hall," where people can sign
up to share their favorite songs and not pay any admission.
Along with Tuft
Hall, the former church that now houses Swallow Hill includes a 300-seat
concert auditorium; a full-feature recording studio; a homey cafe
that evokes the ambience of Greenwich Village coffeehouses; and a
labyrinth of classrooms, from small studios for private lessons to
large rooms where chairs are arranged in a circle.
that a few years ago, he would not have thought he'd want to learn
"folk" music. "I hated folk music growing up. . . . But now I really
dig it," he says.
music can be easier than defining it.
"To me it's a
lot of acoustic songs that are more real than pop -- it's about real
life," Blackstone says.
that the term "folk" music is problematic, although he freely uses
it. Later he wonders if "roots" music might be a better way to describe
the broad range of styles that fit under Swallow Hill's roof.
of 'folk' is people -- folk music is people's music," he says.
an important factor in folk music. Williams says he often sees examples
such as "fathers in the late 40s with their 10-year-old daughters
taking Appalachian fiddle class together."
Williams is in
his third year as executive director, and clearly enjoys his work.
"I'm a glorified administrator, but I'm in the middle of the mix here,
doing the righteous stuff."
There is a sense
of being a disciple, with Swallow Hill housed in a church building
and much of the staff volunteering their time. But Williams counsels
against thinking of Swallow Hill's staff and volunteers as disciples
or preachers for folk music. "We're passionate about the music, but
we're not evangelizers," he says.
converts seem to be coming along just fine without proselytizing.
Swallow Hill's roster of 3,000 members, who receive discounts on classes
and concerts, is growing.
"We're up close
and personal and we rub shoulders with the people who come here. In
times like these, people want to rub shoulders -- they want to be
with other people who think alike. Enrollment (in the classes) is
The biggest problem
facing Swallow Hill, Williams says, is growth. "There are a lot of
(non-profit) organizations like this in their 20s, that were formed
in the mid to late 1970s," he says. "Swallow Hill, like most, has
gone through a process of sorting out how to be big and stay true
to its founding vision."
On a tour of
the building, Williams spends the most time showing off the building's
basement cafe, for which he's hiring a part-time manager. They're
renovating the cafe to make it a more comfortable hangout. The building's
also getting a new lobby design from a local architect, and rooms
are being converted for more classroom space.
The money for
these improvements comes mostly from tuition, ticket sales and cookies
sold in the cafe; the rest is from memberships, grants and donations.
Williams is hoping for more public funding. As a smaller, "Tier III"
organization within the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District,
Swallow Hill is limited to a grant of $35,000, which would be great
for a startup nonprofit, but doesn't go far in Swallow Hill's budget.
to find other similar-sized, established non-profits with the same
issues to help him fight for funds.
supposed to rock the boat," Williams says cheerfully.
Whether or not
he gets more SCFD funding, he's not concerned for the future. "Swallow
Hill's doing great. We enjoy tremendous support and have a great reputation."
Taylor, who first
taught guitar at Swallow Hill in its original location, says she's
awestruck that Swallow Hill is as successful as it is. "When it first
got started, truthfully, I didn't know if it would make it," she says,
chuckling over memories of the well-meaning but disorganized way it
used to be run. "To see it today, it's remarkable for me as someone
who was there at the start."
SWALLOW HILL MUSIC
Acoustic and roots music concerts; music classes; other events
Where: 71 E. Yale Ave., Denver
Phone: (303) 777-1003
Web site: www.swallowhill.com
Ongoing: Classes in guitar, bass, dulcimer, fiddle, banjo, mandolin,
voice, harmonica, winds, percussion, theory, multi-track recording,
storytelling, clogging and more. Next class sessions begin Feb. 18.
blues guitar, 8 p.m. today, $18
Brooks Williams, folk, 8 p.m. Saturday, $15
Pat Donahue, Dana Cooper, blues, folk and jazz, 8 p.m. Feb. 2,
Eidolon, Jubilant Bridge, folk, 8 p.m. Feb. 8, $13
Mike Dowling, Ben Stevens, blues, swing and ragtime, 8 p.m. Feb.
Tom Russell, Andrew Hardin, Texas country soul, 8 p.m. Feb. 9,
Mollie O'Brien, Rich Moore, Pete and Joan Wernick, Helen and Nick
Forster, an evening of love songs, 8 p.m. Feb. 16, $15