Denver's Swallow Hill Music has been preserving American music for 38 years

By Jennifer Oldham, Special to the Business Journal

November 4. 2017

Swallow Hill Music’s journey to ensure Americana’s unique blend of folk, blues, country and contemporary rock lives on is so influential it is chronicled in recordings and newsletters collected by the Library of Congress.

Now, the nation’s second-largest acoustic music school is poised to undertake perhaps its most ambitious project yet — to grow by 50 percent in the next five years through outreach programs, lessons and concerts offered along Denver’s Front Range. Some of the gain will come from expanding its Little Swallows early childhood education program to serve 13 preschools where most students qualify for federal free and reduced-price lunch programs.

“Swallow Hill for this whole time has been right at the intersection of music performance and music education,” said Paul Lhevine, the nonprofit’s chief executive. “We have this amazing foundation that we’ve built over 38 years and now the role we have to play is helping to bring music education to those that can’t afford it.”

With its 250-per-year concert operation in the black and attendance increasing at its music school, Swallow Hill is preparing to invest $100,000 to reach 780 children by the 2018-2019 school year. To further broaden its audience, the organization is offering performances by younger artists designed to entice millennials away from streaming platforms. The moves amplify the cultural touchstone’s unique ability to forge links between the present and the past.

“What made me notice Swallow Hill early on was that they were always striving to become something more, something greater than what they’d already achieved,” said Jennifer Cutting, a folklife specialist at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Cutting first heard of the nonprofit in 1988 as she coordinated the publication of a list of American folk music and folklore recordings chosen by a panel of specialists. They selected an album released that year by the Music Association of Swallow Hill called “A Colorado Dutch Hop Sampler.”

“It was an outstanding ethnographic recording which included polkas and waltzes from current Colorado groups playing “Dutch Hop,” a local term for traditional music and dance of the Volga Germans who settled the prairies of Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado,” she recalled. “The liner notes by Michael Gowan were exceptional, and the recording helped preserve this interesting regional style of folk music.”

The recording became part of the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, along with issues of the Swallow Hill Quarterly from 1995 to 2000, as well as correspondence between the center and the Colorado nonprofit. Founded in 1979 as an offshoot of Harry Tuft’s Denver Folklore Center, Swallow Hill served 164,000 through its concerts, school and outreach programming in 2016 and earned $5.5 million in revenue.

Concerts featuring acts that fall under Americana’s big tent including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sierra Hull, The Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’ Band and The Mavericks are held in several spaces at its headquarters in a converted church off South Broadway at East Yale Avenue including Daniels Hall, Tuft Theatre and Quinlan Café.

Other venues, such as the Arvada Center for the Arts & Humanities, Four Mile Historic Park and the Denver Botanic Gardens, also host the nonprofit’s events. The shows boost the local economy, as well as increase attendance throughout the year at the facilities in which they’re held, said Meredith Badler, program director at the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts.

“When you think about the economic ripple effect that occurs when people are going to enjoy the arts – they put gas in their vehicles, they pay for tickets, they buy concessions,” she said. “At each one of Swallow Hill’s events they are doing that.”

Swallow Hill is also one of many organizations supported by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District that are encouraging more Front Range residents to participate in arts classes. About 507,238 adults and children alike did so in 2015, up 12 percent from 2013, according to the Economic Activity Study of Metro Denver Culture.

About 80 percent of the patrons in 900 group classes and 10,000 private music lessons that Swallow Hill offers each year in voice, percussion, banjo, guitar and mandolin are adults, Lhevine said. The nonprofit also offers music therapy programs in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association, Brent’s Place and Developmental Pathways. To encourage families to try ukuleles, hand drums, fiddles, mini pianos and more, it also runs what it calls “Instrument Petting Zoos.”

In the next year, it will incorporate more classes for lower-income preschoolers into its diverse portfolio. These 30-to-45-minute sessions once a week throughout the school year will mirror a curriculum developed during a pilot project at Montbello’s McGlone Academy. Here, vocalist, pianist and educator Marissa Russo’s been singing and dancing with 64 four-year-olds for the last 18 months.

Recently Russo, dressed in jeans and an airy flowered shirt, encouraged preschoolers outfitted in school uniforms to accompany her in songs designed to help them practice small and large movements, collaboration and patience.

“Way up high in the apple tree,” Russo sang, instructing about a dozen students to stand and mimic her movements. “Five red apples smiled at me. I shook that tree as hard as I could, down came the apple! Mmm, it was good.”

Down plopped the students, who whispered the refrain to their neighbor “apple, applesauce, and cider.” Afterward, Russo paused and went around the circle, asking each of them, from boys sporting buzz cuts and blue hoodies to girls with red and white polka-dotted ribbons perched in their long black hair, to sing a solo.

McGlone’s teachers said the program promoted English learning for Spanish-language students and required them to follow directions and pay attention to the lyrics.  Music education also gave McGlone students, who are 78 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black and almost universally qualify for the federal free and reduced price lunch program, confidence and helped them associate school with fun, Russo said.

“At the preschool level it gets them excited about music,” said the teacher, who also sings in several bands. “It also gets them excited about school and that gets parents involved in school – it creates a community.”

Jennifer Oldham is a Denver freelance writer.