Caffe Lena


A slice of music history.

By Mike Hare

When you hear it on the radio, you can be pretty sure the D.J. is out on a smoke break. But here's what you may not know about the longest song ever to top the Billboard charts-- it was written in Saratoga Springs and debuted in an historic Spa City coffee house.

OK, everybody, "Bye, bye Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry." (This is the part where most people start to get lost).

The first time Don McLean shared this rock and roll anthem with an audience was in a little hole in the wall in Saratoga Springs called Caffe Lena. By then McLean was a regular at Lena Spencer's Phila Street coffee house.

Spencer opened the now famous cafe in 1960, as a venue for little known counter-culture musicians and poets. When the avant-garde movement hit its stride, Caffe Lena was there to welcome its artists and help launch their careers.

An unknown, skinny, insolent folk singer with rumpled clothes, messy hair and a grating voice by the name of Bob Dylan brought his guitar to Caffé Lena. Other legends to pass through the place include Arlo Guthrie and Odetta.

Lena Spencer was not a business woman. She worked for the love of the artists and the art. She fed most, gave some a place to stay, and created a family atmosphere for all. By the time she died, in 1989, she'd given everything she had to her piece of music history.

When Spencer died, a board of directors formed and turned Caffe Lena into a not for profit, where it continued to launch the careers of artists like Ani DiFranco. Today performances run the gamut from folk and blue grass to jazz, blues, funk, punk and soul. Open mic nights are held weekly for musicians and monthly for poets, and the venue is as popular now as it has ever been.

Mike Hare is the author of Saratoga Lives and a Spa City tour guide.


I attend the open mic weekly. I also have been featuring open "mikers" in a documentary-interview-series called "Inside the Open Mic." Currently there are 8 episodes and I'm taking a little break. New tapings will begin soon.

I also write a lot about the open mic on my blog which can be found via

Episodes of "Inside the Open Mic" can be viewed at

Say Something!

We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.

What's All Over Albany?

All Over Albany is for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. In other words, it's for you. It's kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who can help you find out what's up. Oh, and our friends call us AOA.


Recently on All Over Albany

Alison Bechdel at HVCC

Cartoonist/author Alison Bechdel will be at Hudson Valley Community College March 23 for a talk. Bechdel is, of course, the author of Fun Home, the... (more)

The next Union College president is David Harris

Union College announced Tuesday that its next president will be David R. Harris, a 48-year-old sociologist who's currently the provost at Tufts. He'll succeed Stephen... (more)

"The story of slavery is embedded in the story of Albany."

Using entries from the CUNY's New York Slavery Records Index, Amy Biancolli profiles a handful of enslaved people who worked and lived at prominent households... (more)

Saratoga Jazz Fest 2018 lineup

The annual Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival is June 23-24 at SPAC. And the lineup's out -- it includes Chris Botti, Herbie Hancock, Jon Baptiste with... (more)

William Shatner at Proctors

William Shatner. Will be at Proctors. For a screening of The Wrath of Khan. April 4. Tickets go on sale this Friday, February 23 --... (more)

Recent Comments

The current property has been for sale for nearly 15 years. The owners are getting out of the Bowling business, it's happened all over the region. There's a buyer, and the city must evaluate the opportunity cost doing nothing. ...

Gawking at the ceiling of the Smith Building

...has 5 comments, most recently from Greg

William Shatner at Proctors

...has 1 comment, most recently from Mike

No one asked, but...

...has 11 comments, most recently from Greg

Proposed apartment project at the Playdium site gets OK from planning board

...has 20 comments, most recently from neighbor

The week ahead

...has 1 comment, most recently from Tess