In 1960, Lena Spencer and her husband Bill opened a humble coffeehouse in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The Spencers had barely an inkling of what Caffè Lena would become: A groundbreaking mainstay in the folk music world, providing an early venue for singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Pete Seeger. Half a century later, Caffè Lena lays claim to the title of America’s longest continually running coffeehouse. The following memories are abridged excerpts from Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, published by powerhouse Books.
I. Why We Started Caffè Lena
By Lena Spencer
Neither Bill nor I had any background in folk music. Bill’s leanings were toward classical music, mine toward jazz and swing.
“We’ll make enough money in one year to finance at least five years in Europe.” That was the initial reason.
We found our location, the second story of a loft on Phila Street. The first floor housed a laundromat and a dinky little antique store. The second floor had been unused since 1953 and was in a state of disrepair.
We suddenly found ourselves involved in a kind of music to which we had never been exposed, a kind of music that was slowly developing an appreciative audience.
Soon we were making weekly Monday night trips to New York City and the “hoots” at Gerde’s Folk City where we got to meet and hear many of the greatest folk artists in the country, booking them to perform at the Caffè.
Well, a year went by and it turned out that we didn’t make enough money in a year to spend the next five years in Europe. It was more like we were in the red. Bill became very frustrated because he couldn’t do his own work and the pressures of the Caffè were beginning to get a little too much for him. To make a long story short, he just got out. I chose to stay here and pick up all the pieces and put them together.
I just kept going and going, and I got more and more involved in music and performers and in the theater. I don’t have any formula. I couldn’t sit down and write a book on how to run a coffeehouse. All I can say is, “Just do it with a whole bunch of love, do it with the attitude that you’re in it not to make money, that you’re in it to serve.”
—Saratoga Springs, New York, 1989
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II. From Caffè Lena to Carnegie Hall
By Bernice Johnson Reagon
The summer of 1962 opened with me wondering what I was going to do, after being arrested and suspended from college [for my role in the civil rights movement]. One of the leaders of the movement told me about her summer job when she was in college; her mother and sister traveled to Saratoga Springs and worked in Hattie’s Chicken Shack.
Soon I was working waiting tables at Hatties. I was not conscious of it, but as I worked, I hummed to myself. One day, one of my customers, a local painter whose first name was Ray said to me, “You have a nice voice. I am going to take you to a friend of mine.” So he took me to meet Lena and Bill Spencer at Caffè Lena. I sang for Lena and she said, “Oh, you have to sing at the Caffè!” At the time, I did not know what folk music was.
I tell people that my first job as a solo unaccompanied singer was at Caffè Lena. My second job was at Carnegie Hall. I got a call one day at Lena’s and it was Bob Shelton from The New York Times. I don’t know that there’s another small music organization that had the reach that Caffè Lena had, with the same openness and nurturing. It was in some ways its own genre. Pete Seeger called me one day at Lena’s. Bob Shelton called me at Lena’s. I don’t know where else they would have found me.
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III. What Lena Did
By Pete Seeger
Lena at times used speed and other times slowed down. I’m sure I did lots of silly things, but she took me as I was and didn’t try to control me.
If anybody had offered her a high-paying job, to move to some far off place, she would have turned it down.
What Lena did over a long period of time was just one of the many little modern miracles which may save the world.
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IV. At Lena’s House
By Arlo Guthrie
In the early summer of 1965, when I was eighteen years old and just outta high school, I decided that I was gonna do some gigs. I had just bought a red ’57 MGA, a beautiful English sports car, from Pete Seeger and I was rarin’ to go. I had my gee-tar in a soft case. Caffè Lena was the first stop.
We stayed at Lena’s house. I loved going back to Lena’s for all kinds of reasons, almost none of which had to do with actually performing. When you went to Lena’s, it wasn’t just like another gig. It was gonna be the next week or two of your life. It wasn’t like you went to the hotel, then came and did the gig, and then went away. It was a total immersion into Lena’s life.
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By Rufus Wainwright
My mother Kate’s happiest days were at Caffè Lena. She was from Montreal, ended up in New York City, and then back in Montreal. In a lot of ways Saratoga was the halfway point, where she would discover stuff. It was free and open for her and allowed her to heal from what had happened in the big city.
We would drop by and visit Lena, and I vividly remember the Caffè. I would have been around twelve [years old]. I remember those murderous stairs! She had amazing minted malt milkshakes. I later wrote “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” so who knows, maybe it came from an early memory of that.
When we met these people, it was a lineage we were encouraged to absorb. I’m definitely from a folk-ocracy, folk and foremost. We’ve always operated in an inclusive manner with all types of musicians. That’s from the coffeehouse mentality.
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Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, edited by Jocelyn Arem in collaboration with Caffè Lena and published by powerHouse Books, is available on Amazon.