“They gathered spontaneously around Lena Spencer and Caffè Lena, the small bohemian coffeehouse she ran in Saratoga Springs from 1960
until her death in 1989. The oldest continuously running coffeehouse in the country, Caffè Lena endures as almost a time capsule – and a natural documentary subject.”
-Jeremy Bloom, THE NEW YORK TIMES
Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York is widely recognized as America’s oldest continuously running folk music coffeehouse. The Library of Congress deemed it “a national treasure”. Caffè Lena was born during the peak of the period known as the Folk Revival. During the 1960s in Greenwich Village, Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere, coffeehouses opened up to give a stage to authentic old time singers, as well as to young artists recreating or borrowing from traditional styles. Greenwich Village had the Gaslight, the Bitter End and Gerde’s Folk City, and was the home turf of Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs. Boston had Club 47, which introduced Joan Baez and Tom Rush. San Francisco had The Hungry I, which offered The Kingston Trio and Tom Lehrer and The Limeliters. And Saratoga Springs had Caffè Lena.
In 1958, twenty-eight-year-old actress Lena Spencer left the home she shared with her parents and brothers in Milford, Massachusetts, quit a position at a radio station in Boston where she’d met John F. Kennedy on his inaugural tour and moved with her new husband Bill Spencer into a second-floor loft building at 47 Phila Street in Saratoga Springs, New York. Inspired by the local Skidmore College scene and the burgeoning folk revival movement, they were determined to create a successful American folk coffeehouse and theater with a European feel and a nurturing, home-like atmosphere.
From 1960 to Lena’s passing in 1989 (Bill Spencer left Lena and the Caffè in 1962), Caffè Lena presented prominent performers of the American folksong movement on its tiny stage, and theater productions in its Gallery Theater, now known as the Black Box Theater. Lena Spencer exposed hundreds of artists to new audiences at her Caffè, making music history and a name for herself in American cultural history. Her spirit lives on in the still active Caffè Lena, which continues to present new artists today.
Caffè Lena’s roster includes many notable names in folk music and theater history. Yaddo artist community writers and poets dropped in, as did Skidmore College students, actor John Wynne Evans, activist and folk radio DJ Jackie Alper, photography legend Joe Alper, Jackie Washington (who with Sue Abel performed first on the Caffè Lena stage in May, 1960), Hedy West, Carolyn Hester, and the Wildflowers Music Collective. A longtime friendship with folk and blues singer Dave Van Ronk led to early bookings with elderly Delta blues legends Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James for some of their very last public performances, and the first booking of Bob Dylan outside of New York City. In the early 1960s, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon had her very first public singing engagement at Caffè Lena. Pete Seeger dropped by to perform. Noel Stookey performed there before his Peter, Paul and Mary fame. Kate and Anna McGarrigle traveled from Canada to play at Lena’s, while Jean Redpath, Jacqui McDonald and Bridie O’Donnell came from overseas in the UK. Spalding Gray, Liz LeCompte, and David Hyde Pierce cut their acting chops in the Caffè Lena theater. Don McLean performed regularly at Lena's well before his "American Pie" fame, inspiring a longstanding legend that he penned the tune in Saratoga Springs. In 1973 he took Lena as his special guest to the GRAMMY awards. In later years, Utah Phillips (always introduced by Lena as “the golden voice of the great southwest”), Emmylou Harris, Ani DiFranco, the Gibson Brothers, David Amram, the Greenbriar Boys, Garrett “G.Love” Dutton and many hundreds of other folk, country, blues, bluegrass, traditional artists, poets and actors would join the scene. While focusing primarily on folk music, Lena Spencer was also a fan of jazz and presented a number of notable jazz artists, including Bucky and John Pizzarelli, jazz violinist Joe Venuti, and the Capitol District's own Nick Brignola and Lee Shaw. More recent concerts with Jeremy Kittel, Frank Vignola, Al Gallodoro, and John Jorgenson have kept the Caffè's jazz roster growing. Lena’s artist list continues to grow each year.
Lena Spencer and her Caffè continued through the 1970s with a growing role as one of the central figures and institutions of the folk music world. As some of the folk revival clubs dropped away, including Gerde’s and the Gas Light, Caffè Lena inherited the status of longest continuously operating folk club in the country and Lena herself began to achieve legendary status.
In 1985 on the occasion of Caffè Lena’s 25th Anniversary, Pete Seeger performed alongside Nanci Griffith and a ten-year-old Rufus Wainwright at a public concert to honor Lena’s contributions. That year the Kennedy Center called to congratulate Caffè Lena on its longstanding role in America’s music history. In the two years before she died, Lena received an honorary degree from Skidmore College, and the Saratoga Springs Arts Council’s first Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1989, Filmmaker Stephen Trombley, in association with PBS and the BBC, filmed a documentary entitled “Caffè Lena,” narrated by Kate McGarrigle, which aired on WMHT television. Lena’s on-screen debut as an actress came in 1987 when she acted opposite Meryl Streep, Tom Waits, and Jack Nicholson in Ironweed, a feature film based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Albany, New York author William Kennedy.
Upon Lena's death in 1989, Caffè Lena was converted to a non-profit institution, which today continues as a living legend. A major fundraising campaign in 1998 with private donations and a grant from the NYS Department of Parks and Recreation enabled Caffè Lena to buy its building. Today, Caffè Lena is run by a small paid staff, a Board of Directors, and an ever-evolving team of volunteers from the ages of 13 to 75. It presents over 400 events annually and serves approximately 12,000 people per year. The Caffè is proud to stay true to Lena's founding vision of simplicity, kindness to strangers, and art above profit. Caffè Lena is an intimate setting with a concert hall atmosphere where people come to enjoy performances by the top players in the field. Three shows per weekend feature traditional and contemporary folk, blues, jazz and ethnic music by nationally and internationally touring professional musicians. Weekly programming includes an "Emerging Artist Breakout", which allows teens to enjoy concerts by their peers in a genuine club setting that is free of alcohol and smoke. Caffè Lena's weekly open mic has been running for twenty-five years. A supportive and attentive multi-generational audience is on hand every week to enjoy the work of both seasoned and novice performers. Caffè Lena maintains an active poetry program, with monthly open mics, an annual poetry festival, and occasional readings by nationally known poets throughout the year. The Albany Capital District’s only open mic exclusively for storytellers takes place at Caffè Lena every other month. Please visit the Caffè Lena “Calendar” link at www.caffelena.org for upcoming shows.
Fifty years after the folk revival, a new generation of musicians and music enthusiasts is discovering the sounds that have sprung up from America’s common experiences. About 25% of Caffè Lena’s roster consists of artists performing at the Caffè for the first time. Many of its artists headline major festivals and play regularly in large concert halls. The opportunity to see nationally touring performers in the historic, intimate, living room like setting of the Caffè keeps the seats filled and the interest strong.
In 2008, the International Folk Alliance recognized Caffè Lena with its annual “Best Small Venue” award (co-awarded that year to Berkeley, CA venue The Freight and Salvage). In the same year, the Library of Congress acquired the Caffè Lena archival collection for inclusion in the American Folklife Center. In 2010, Caffè Lena celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a sold-out concert by Arlo Guthrie and Robin and Linda Williams at Skidmore College’s Arthur Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs. The evening began with an introduction by Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Bulger, Director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, also a Caffè Lena musical alumnus.
The Caffè Lena archives include 7,500 period photographs, original archival memorabilia and over 100 reel-to-reel tape recordings, documenting hundreds of folk artists who performed at Caffè Lena from the 1960s to the present. The Caffè Lena History Project is dedicated to preserving and cataloging Caffè Lena’s collection, researching and digitizing archival photographs, and gathering oral history interviews honoring Lena’s legacy in American cultural history, as the Caffè continues to present and inspire new generations of artists today.
© 2011 Jocelyn Arem, Edited by Sarah Craig and George Ward.