Folk Music Heaven, Upstairs
Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Made Music History
By BEN SISARIO
Published: October 23, 2013
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The first sign that Caffè Lena is different from other joints where guitars are strummed and coffee is sipped comes before you even enter the place. Next to it, off a picturesque side street here, runs Lena Lane, an alleyway commemorating the club and the woman who ran it and became a local legend.
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Since 1960, tiny, unprepossessing Caffè Lena has hosted thousands of folk musicians, from first timers at the weekly open mike to Arlo Guthrie, Don McLean, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Bob Dylan, who, by most accounts, played his first out-of-town show there after arriving in New York City.
Now Caffè Lena and its proprietor, Lena Spencer, who died in 1989, are being celebrated with an exhaustively researched coffee-table book, CD boxed set and an audio archive destined for the Library of Congress. Together they make a case for the club as a landmark outpost of folk music in America, and for Spencer as a sharp-eyed and nurturing force for the music.
The book, “Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse,” just published by powerHouse Books, is the result of 11 years of work by Jocelyn Arem, 31, who first walked up the club’s narrow staircase on an open mike night as a sophomore at nearby Skidmore College.
Ms. Arem said she quickly traced the hospitality and camaraderie of the place back to Spencer, a daughter of Italian immigrants who founded the club with her husband, Bill, a sculptor; they had vague, beatnik-era plans of making enough money from the venture to coast in Europe for a while. Her husband soon left, but she kept the doors open — barely, at times — and built a reputation for earning the trust of top musicians. The club calls itself the oldest continuously running folk coffeehouse in the country.
“There’s a spirit of family here that’s different,” Ms. Arem said. “Lena insisted that performers stay with her, and she fed them. When people came here, they let their guard down, and as artists, they feel they can tap into parts of their creative selves that they can’t in other places.”
The book’s very existence highlights one of the little-told stories of the folk movement: its spread beyond the well-trod centers of Greenwich Village, Boston and San Francisco into Middle America.
“Caffè Lena was one of those iconic places that were strategically placed around the country and actually made it possible for the folk-song revival to happen,” said Peggy Bulger, the former director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. (She also performed at the cafe at the age of 15, she said, opening for the Greenbriar Boys.)
The book tells that story through testimonials collected by Ms. Arem and hundreds of photographs of artists who passed through the club, starting with the very first, Jackie Washington (now known as Jack Landron), in May 1960. Mr. Dylan is seen performing and hanging out in 1962, looking as if he had just stepped off the cover of his first album. Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Bernice Johnson Reagon and others fill out the ’60s glory years, on to the present day with Ani DiFranco, Sarah Lee Guthrie (Arlo’s daughter), Mary Gauthier and the rock band the Figgs.
For the album “Live at Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013,” which was released last month by Tompkins Square, Ms. Arem recovered tapes of more than 700 shows from various private sources, including more than one dusty basement in upstate New York. These will all go to the Library of Congress archive.
The 47 tracks chosen for the set went through audio restoration with the help of Steve Rosenthal, a Grammy-winning producer in New York. Ms. Arem, who financed the 11-year project through various grants and donations, said she hit the phones “like Erin Brockovich” to clear rights for the songs, which include a striking a cappella performance by Jean Ritchie in 1969 and tracks by cafe fixtures like Anna McGarrigle, Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels. (Spencer herself sings a Noël Coward nugget, “Dear Little Café,” in 1972.)
The connecting thread through it all is Spencer, who largely gave up acting to run the club (though she landed a small role as Slatternly Woman in the 1987 film “Ironweed”). Locals knew her as a chain-smoking constant in the back of the room, which looks much the same today as it did decades ago: a plainly decorated, L-shaped space one flight up a narrow staircase, with room for just 85 people. The finances of the club were always shaky, and eventually Spencer lost her apartment and began living at the cafe. She died at 66, after a fall down the stairs.
Artists came to revere her for her insight and generosity. In the book, Mr. McLean recalls her paying him $300 for an engagement instead of the $150 he was owed because, she told him, he “did so well.” David Amram, the polymath composer who began his career playing jazz and classical music in the 1950s, said in a recent interview that his own music shifted after Spencer suggested in 1969 that he perform in the simpler folk-song idiom.
After her death, the club was organized under a nonprofit organization, which now owns the small building and some adjacent property. It is raising money for $1.25 million in renovations that would finally, after five decades, put in an elevator and make other improvements.
On a recent Saturday night, Caffè Lena was as scrappy as ever — although the audience was largely white haired — for a sold-out show by the Dyer Switch Band, a local bluegrass group. Young waitresses served tea and cookies, and the chairman of the cafe’s board handled the sound check.
Earlier that day, Mr. Amram, 82, visited the club on his way to the nearby Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where he was playing with Willie Nelson as part of this year’s Farm Aid festival. He looked around and said he still felt the magic from the time he first walked up the stairs.
“It reminded me of the Café Bohemia, my first job in New York in 1955, with Charles Mingus,” he said, and how “this humble little place was suddenly turned into a temple of art for that evening.”