Caffè Lena: folk history into recorded history

caffe lena history arem seeger

Jocelyn Arem meeting with Pete Seeger earlier this year. The Caffè Lena History Project includes photos of Seeger's first performance at the venue, in 1962.

By Danielle Furfaro
"She was the first and last person I ever knew who would pay me more money than we agreed upon. One show I did in 1967, she gave me 300 bucks. My jaw dropped. She said, 'We did very well, so I wanted to share it with you."
-- Don McLean on Lena Spencer, founder of Caffè Lena

Lena Spencer loved musicians as much as she loved music.

Her cafe on Phila Street in Saratoga has been the stomping grounds for generations of folk musicians. Some, like McLean and Bob Dylan, became big stars and others spent a lifetime creating songs in relative obscurity. But they all found a home at Caffè Lena. Eventually Lena's commitment to musicians made the venue the oldest continuously running coffee house in the country.

Spencer died in 1989, on her way to a Spaudling Grey show. Since then a not-for-profit has kept the cafe going, continuing her legacy. Caffè Lena still puts on hundreds of events each year, and continues to work to capture the experimental nature of contemporary folk music.

These days the board at Caffè Lena is looking to its past as well as its future -- documenting the history of the historic cafe to preserve the moments that made it an institution.

The Caffè Lena History Project has gathered hundreds of hours of audio, video and oral history recordings. And they're still scouring the music community looking for more.

Musician Jocelyn Arem is the founder of the Caffè Lena History Project. We talked with her about a what the project has unearthed -- and where Saratoga's little caffè -- with two fs -- fits into music history.

How did the Caffè Lena History Project start, who is involved and what kind of material are you are collecting?

The Caffè Lena History Project began as a senior ethnomusicology fieldwork study and research paper while I was an undergraduate student at Skidmore College. As an aspiring folk musician, I'd heard the folklore surrounding "that place where Bob Dylan played." After a study abroad semester in London where I deepened my interest in the 1960s folk music revival, I returned to Saratoga, created a self-determined major in ethnomusicology, and with Sarah's blessing, started the Caffè Lena History Project in 2002. After graduating from Skidmore, I joined the Caffè Lena Board of Directors and continued to expand the project with the help of advisors in Saratoga and beyond.

The project began to research Lena Spencer's papers at the Saratoga Springs History Museum. Some of the material had already been collected over the years. Our research and survey of material resulted in the first comprehensively organized Caffè Lena collection -- including the material at the museum, material collected since Lena's passing, and stories making up the Caffè Lena oral history collection. Ten years later, we are continuing to collect recordings, stories, photographs, and other memorabilia such as letters, posters, programs and menus, for preservation with the Caffè Lena Collection now being digitized at the Library of Congress.

caffe lena history project rosenthal recordingHow much material have you collected so far? What do you feel are the most rare or cherished pieces?

So far we've collected over 200 hours of audio and video recordings, 150 written memoirs and oral histories, and identified 7,500 photographs made at Caffè Lena. Each item is rare and precious, as it fills in another missing piece of the puzzle making up Caffè Lena's vibrant 50-year history. The oral history part of the collection is especially poignant, in that many Caffè Lena friends who shared their stories over the past ten years including Jackie Alper and Utah Phillips have now passed away, while others including Gil Robbins, Suze Rotolo and Bill Morrissey passed away before they were able to share their memories of the cafe.

Are there any elusive items that you hope are out there, but haven't found yet?

We are especially hoping to find early recordings-- both audio and video-- made at Caffè Lena in the 1960s. Even during the early period of the Caffè's history, portable recording equipment was readily available and used by both professional and amateur folks alike. So it's quite possible that reel-to-reel recordings exist, but it is critical and urgent that we are able to transfer them to digital format in order to preserve the quality of the material before the analog tape deteriorates.

Luckily we now have a secure repository set up to receive and preserve the material, and help from the GRAMMY Foundation to ensure the transfers are done professionally. We are hopeful that people will come forward to donate their materials and help us preserve Caffè Lena's recorded legacy for future generations.

Where is this all stored and what does Caffè Lena plan to do with it in the long-term?

The archival material is stored, and in process of being preserved, with the Caffè Lena Collection at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Once digitized, the immediate goal of this preservation work is to display select material in a coffee table book with a companion CD and educational website, but we need fundraising to bring that portion of the project to life. The long-term goal is to make the material available to future researchers interested in learning more about Caffè Lena's great impact on music history.

What does the project document about the life of Lena Spencer?

The project honors Lena's dedication to a vast family of artists who were inspired by her support for their creative paths. A common thread that appears throughout the archival material we've preserved is admiration for Lena's nurturing spirit. Photographer Joe Alper clicked his camera shutter in time to the music, maintaining a deep reverence for the intimate performance space Lena created for musicians while he captured compelling images of the musical moments at her Caffè. Musician Billy Faier calls his live recording at Caffè Lena "head and shoulders above all the rest in performance quality" owing this feeling to the comfortable, home-like atmosphere Lena instilled at the Caffè. Countless musicians cite Lena as the source of their early music education, documenting her life there as a kind of catalyst for some of our best-loved music today including Don McLean's, "American Pie" and Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant."

If you've got material that you think belongs in the Caffè Lena archives, you can contact the project through the Caffè Lena History website. Sound clips can also be heard on the Caffè Lena website.

Pete Seeger photo: George Ward
Steve Rosenthal recordings photo: Jocelyn Arem

Find It

Caffe Lena
47 Phila Street
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866


I bet Rosalie Sorrels has some good stories.

Gosh, after reading this I am so embarrassed that after living upstate for 8 years and in Saratoga for 1, I have never been to Cafe Lena.

An inexpensive way to experience Caffe Lena is the weekly open mic night on Thursdays. It's only 3 dollars at the door and you get to hear a lot of contemporary songwriters/musicians play original songs and songs from the 60's folk movement when Lena opened the caffe.

I host the open mic every third Thursday of each month. I can honestly tell you that there is a sensation in that room (Caffe Lena) that you don't get anywhere else. I can't explain the sensation... but others feel it as well. It's a warm inviting place and despite it's 60's folk club facade, there is a timelessness that cannot be described. You'll have to experience it for yourself.

Open mic doors open at 7 and the music starts at 7:30. You can come and go as you please, but remember that the first rule of Caffe Lena is that it is a listening room where the music is meant to be heard.

Caffe Lena is pretty great - go check out Open Mic Nights on Thursdays!

3$ what a great deal. I took my high school girlfriend there for our first date in February '72. It may have been only $2.50 a head to get in.

Can't remember who we saw but for $5 it must have been someone really good. She still talks about it what a great time she had.

Lena was my Great Uncle Bill's wife. My dad was just telling me about this. Its super interesting and cool

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