Harry Tuft (1935–) is a Denver businessman, music promoter, educator, and proprietor of the long-standing Denver Folklore Center. As one of Denver’s enterprising musicians in the 1960s and 1970s, Tuft brought the genre of folk music and its culture to Denver and was responsible for some of Red Rocks Amphitheatre’s best-known performances in that period.
Harry Tuft was born in 1935, raised in Philadelphia, and attended West Philadelphia High School. His middle-class Jewish parents hoped that their son might go into medicine. After graduating with a degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College and two years of post-graduate work in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, it was clear that he had other dreams in mind. Like others in the mid- and late 1950s, Tuft became infatuated with folk music. He took piano and clarinet lessons as a child and began plunking the ukulele when he was thirteen. Before long he traded his four-string baritone ukulele for a six-string guitar, began performing for youth groups, and hung around Philadelphia’s The Gilded Cage, a popular European-style coffeehouse that presented live folk music. Through his participation in the Sunday “hoots” at The Gilded Cage, Tuft became fast friends with Dick Weissman, a talented banjo and guitar player, who soon moved to New York City to work as a studio musician. Weissman played a critical role in Tuft’s folk music education.
In 1960 Tuft made his first trip to New York to visit Weissman, hoping to sample firsthand the folk culture of Greenwich Village and visit Izzy Young’s Folklore Center. It would bring Tuft into contact with the ideas he would carry west. Later that year, Tuft and Weissman made a trip to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where Weissman was scheduled to perform. There, Tuft saw another aspect of the folk revival not present in the Village. Founded in 1957, the Old Town School of Folk Music offers lessons to eager students in guitar, banjo, mandolin, songwriting, folk dance, and nearly anything associated with folk music. Visiting musicians offered workshops on a variety of topics and skills, providing live performances four or five nights a week.
Tuft Travels West
In December 1960, Tuft traveled to Colorado with Weissman, who was on his way to Los Angeles to perform. Tuft elected to stay in Colorado and landed a job in Georgetown at the Holy Car, a quaint inn and restaurant that catered to skiers. He could ski A Basin by day and spend his evenings busing tables, sweeping floors, and toiling in the kitchen in the hope of having a few minutes to perform for guests at the end of the day. In 1961 he and his girlfriend found work at the Berthoud Pass Lodge, enjoying the chance to ski the Rockies but making almost no money. After the ski season ended, they worked in Aspen as housekeepers for awhile.
The pair then traveled to the West Coast, where Tuft drove a cab for the Sausalito Taxi Company. By chance, he met up with Dick Weissman, who by this time was playing with John Phillips (later of the Mamas and the Papas) in the popular folk group the Highwaymen, who were working at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco. Tuft performed at the hungry i as well, but paying jobs for playing music were few, and Tuft came to the realization that performing, though satisfying, was not likely to be his full-time career. He began to consider opening a store that would combine the commercial merchandising elements of the New York Folklore Center with the teaching and performance setting of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. Hal Neustaedter, owner of the Denver folk club the Exodus, encouraged Tuft to consider Denver for his enterprise.
Return to Denver
Tuft returned to the East Coast and began making plans. Naïve about business, he used his meager life savings to buy merchandise from Izzy Young, packed his belongings into his 1951 Dodge panel truck, and began the return trip west, arriving in Denver in December 1961. Neustaedter, who died in a plane crash the very day Tuft arrived back in Denver, had suggested locating the store somewhere along Twentieth Avenue, but storefronts were either too expensive or too far from the flow of traffic. Tuft decided on a location at Seventeenth Avenue and Pearl Street known as Swallow Hill, an area just east of downtown. The store opened for business on March 13, 1962.
The Denver Folklore Center
The early years of the Denver Folklore Center proved to be quite lean. Tuft began searching for new revenue streams. He wanted to add record sales to the store but lacked the necessary cash or credit. Tuft eventually met Austin Miller, who worked for American Records Distributors, run by Joe and Lou Oxman. When Miller visited the store, Tuft asked for and received a $200 line of credit. It was not until years later when Tuft learned that Miller, impressed by Tuft’s honesty and sincerity, had extended the credit on his own personal guarantee. With the new credit line, Tuft bought his first batch of 100 LPs. He also befriended Maury Samuelson, the proprietor of the Crown Drug Store on California Street. The Crown was the only local retailer of Folkways Records and Elektra Records, the two largest and most respected purveyors of nonmainstream folk music. Like Miller, Samuelson extended a small line of credit to the Denver Folklore Center.
Tuft felt that to have any legitimacy in his venture, he had to offer musical instruments, especially guitars, which were gaining in popularity. After Gibson guitars refused to deal with the small-timer, Tuft made arrangements to carry Guild guitars and, over time, became Guild’s leading local dealer. Like a number of others, he began to acquire a good understanding of the vintage instruments built before World War II. Many musicians sought out these instruments for their supposedly superior sound quality, often paying considerably more for a used thirty-year-old instrument than a brand-new one. Selling vintage instruments became a fundamental part of the Denver Folklore Center’s success.
Even with a stock of instruments, records, books, and other musical paraphernalia, something more was needed for the center to succeed. Tuft started opening on Sundays to allow for song circles, which became known as hootenannies. Participants formed a large circle and took turns performing a song, and when appropriate, others joined in on other instruments or sang harmony. It was a way to make a little money and share the warmth of music at the same time, and because of their novelty, the hoots gave the center some much-needed publicity. When Tuft’s parents came to visit the store in the summer of 1962, they were a bit dismayed by its sparseness. They continued to be supportive, but his mother later admitted that she nearly cried when she saw how poor her son’s store was.
As business slowly improved, Tuft expanded the store into the space next door, giving him a chance to offer more lessons. He began replicating the approach he learned from his visit to the Old Town School of Folk Music, in which a group of up to eight players gathered with their instructor in one of the store’s spaces. At the end of an hour, the students and instructors gathered for coffee, soft drinks, and cookies, milling around and discussing music. On occasion, nationally known musicians visited, providing workshops for the more advanced and daring students.
Tuft again expanded the center, eventually taking over his entire block on Seventeenth Avenue. Feeling optimistic, he opened a working relationship with Martin Guitar. Key to their working relationship was accomplished guitarist and banjo player David Ferretta. Per their contract with Martin, the center placed an order for instruments every six months, paying half the bill when the order was placed and the remainder on delivery. Ferretta aggressively sold the guitars, and the center eventually became the largest Martin dealer between Salt Lake City and Chicago. Ferretta later opened his own store in Denver, modeled somewhat after the center.
Tuft the Promoter
Thanks to his connections with the folk music scene back east, Tuft began to promote artists’ shows. Over the next few years, he promoted nationally known acts like Taj Mahal and Joan Baez, who performed her first show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Tuft promoted a few big-name artists at Red Rocks, including the successful first pairing of Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in 1969. Tuft focused his promotional efforts on smaller shows at the center by artists such as Judy Collins, Jack Elliott, and guitar great Doc Watson; he also promoted local acts such as the City Limits Bluegrass Band and the Rambling Drifters.
By the mid-1970s, the center had gained a well-deserved reputation as Denver’s home for folk and acoustic music, but business was changing. The popularity of folk music declined sharply amidst the rise of bubble gum rock ’n’ roll, and disco dominated the popular music scene, making it increasingly difficult to keep the store profitable. At the end of 1978. Tuft totaled the year’s expenses to discover that the concert hall had lost $15,000 that year. The concerts provided good advertising for the center, but it was too hard to justify that amount of debt. Tuft soon discovered that he had lost the leases on the Seventeenth Avenue properties, as the owners decided to sell to developers looking to build a convenience store at the site. Tuft closed his store in March 1980. Over the next decade, a variety of organizations and businesses held the Denver Folklore Center name as it moved throughout Denver, eventually settling on Pearl Street in 1993.
Tuft continues to operate the Denver Folklore Center at its Pearl Street location. Those who remember the original store often remark that the new store looks the same. It retains the homey feel of the old store. Tuft’s vision of combining a store, instrument repair shop, school, concert space, and performance promotion was locally and nationally unique. Longtime customers still look to the Denver Folklore Center as their source for instruments and recordings while new customers find solid advice on instrument purchases and an extensive collection of folk-oriented sheet music and instruction manuals. More than anything, the center is the focal point for those interested in acoustic music; a sense of community still permeates the store. After forty years, the Denver Folklore Center remains a cultural and social landmark.
Adapted from Paul Malkoski, “A Folk Music Mecca: Harry Tuft and the Denver Folklore Center,” Colorado Heritage 26, no. 1 (2006).