Caffé Lena: Legendary Folk Club Chronicled in New Book

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One night during her freshman year at Skidmore College, Jocelyn Arem drove to nearby Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to play at open mic night at a small coffeehouse called Caffé Lena. It was — and still is — a tiny venue.

“The room is only 85 seats,” she recalls, “and it gives you an intimate experience that you need when you’re just starting out.”

That night was fateful. Not only was Arem offered her first professional gig, but some of the older folkies at the coffeehouse took her under their wing and passed along music she had never heard.

“They played me songs like ‘Candy Man’ and told me these were songs I would have to know,” she recalls. “The people at Caffé Lena gave me a very different education that I never would have gotten in school.”

Fascinated by this still burgeoning folk scene, Arem began to delve into the history of Caffé Lena, which was opened in 1960 by a couple named Bill and Lena Spencer. They intended it to be a place where ideas could be exchanged freely, where the pastries were always fresh and where musical traditions could be passed from one generation to the next.

Until her death in 1989, Lena fostered hundreds of fledgling folkies — among many others, Bob Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Arlo Guthrie, Don McLean, Loudon Wainwright III and Anaïs Mitchell.

After finishing her degree, Arem eventually became director of the Caffé Lena History Project. In that role, she and other archivists have spent the last 10 years tracking down photographs, recordings and ephemera. A new book, Caffé Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, gathers testimonies from Spencer as well as from the many artists who played its stage, interspersing their words with black-and-white photographs by Joe Alper and Joseph Deuel. A companion three-CD boxed set, Live at Caffé Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013, collects nearly 50 never-before-heard performances and doubles as a unique history of folk music during the last half-century.

CMT Edge: What about Caffé Lena fascinated you as a historian as well as a musician?

Arem: Being a musician and starting out, I wanted to learn more about the world I was walking into, and I just instinctively thought the best way to do that was to hear stories from people who had played Caffé Lena for a long time. When I first starting researching the story and how Lena had dedicated her life to making sure artists could make the kind of music they wanted to make, I felt like the story needed to be told. If I could do that, it would totally enrich my life and hopefully could contribute to the music in some way.

Opening a coffeehouse in 1960 meant something totally different in 1960 than it does in 2013. Caffé Lena wasn’t a Starbucks.

When Lena and her husband started the café, their idea was to model it after the European tradition of the coffeehouse as gathering space for people to share ideas and learn from each other. They saw what was happening in Greenwich Village and how that coffeehouse scene was bringing different kinds of people together in the city, but pretty soon, that became very commercialized. It became a tourist attraction. Lena didn’t want her coffeehouse to go in that direction, so she had to make sure it stayed true to her ideals — remaining community focused, never serving alcohol, nourishing people through homemade food, allowing for complete freedom of expression. Sarah Lee Guthrie talked about her father [Arlo Guthrie] working out “Alice’s Restaurant” in that space. Kate and Anna McGarrigle would bring their new records that had just been pressed to Lena so she could listen and give her opinion. It was really a training ground for artists.

So her job was not just making coffee and serving homemade pastries. She was an integral part of the music being made at Caffé Lena.

Right. She was really an innovator. Elizabeth LeCompte [a founding member of the experimental theater troupe the Wooster Group] talked about her being the shoulder on the road for so many artists who needed someone to set an example of what it meant to push against the grain. People were drawn to her rebellious spirit. She was a mother figure and an artist in her own right. I think she tapped into something about Saratoga Springs that was important, and she made it work despite a lot of people who didn’t want her there at first. They thought Caffé Lena would be a beatnik hangout, which is actually something she fought against for a long time.

Where did you find the music on Live at Caffé Lena?

We found songs all over the country — in people’s basements and attics. In many cases, they were recorded off the soundboard and were saved on cassette tapes, or they were recorded by audience members. Steve Rosenthal, my co-producer, at one point realized that this archive represents the full history of the folklorist format, from reel-to-reel to cassette tapes to digital.

The set also provides an intriguing history of the folk scene during this time. You can see how someone like Mike Seeger informs a much younger performer like Ani DiFranco.

I think there are some pretty strong connections. On the first CD, Rosalie Sorrels sings “Travelin’ Lady,” and then on the last CD, you find Tift Merritt singing “Traveling Alone” a few decades later. These are women separated by generations, yet they’re singing about the same thing on the same stage. It’s fascinating to listen to these songs and make those connections between artists. You can listen to the first CD and feel like the roots of these traditions are so strong on the café stage. By the third CD, you can hear the artists taking these traditions into new directions, yet they’re still rooted. That’s the point of the café still being there.

As a musician as well as a historian, were there any songs in particular that stood out to you and maybe informed your own music?

It’s so nice to discover people I never knew about. One of my favorites is Barbara Dane. I’m really surprised more people haven’t heard about her. I’m so excited that we found one of her songs. That was actually right before we finished the CD, and we added it at the last minute. That also happened with the Jean Ritchie track [“West Virginia Mine Disaster”]. We didn’t know we had that song, but we were poring over the archives and found it. It’s so simple, but it’s so beautiful. It’s definitely one of my favorites.

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