Caffe Lena was my big sister. We grew up together. She was born in 1960 when I was 10 but she matured a lot faster than I did (she’s not the only one!). She hung out with my Mom and Dad at first. They went down to the bus station an hour away to pick up performers for Lena who did not drive. In those days the same artist performed all weekend and sometimes they even slept at our house. Mom and Dad were there when Lena chastised the audience for not listening to a young upstart. “You are going to be hearing more of this young man.” But my mom and dad left unimpressed by Bob Dylan — “He can’t really sing.”
As I headed into my teen years and The Beatles had their way with me I began to get drawn in. It was where the odd (cool) kids in my school hung out – the artists, the beatniks, the pot smokers (though I knew NOTHING of that yet) Really! It was dark and mysterious and in those days, very smoky. Lena sat by the stairs with her cat and Dorothea Brownell playing scrabble and might occasionally acknowledge one or the other of us.
Freewheelin’ was my coming of age. I was 14 when I brought that album home and I can probably sing you every line of “Blowin in the Wind” and “Masters of War” and “Hard Rain”. And mustn’t forget “Don’t Think Twice, Its Alright”. Something cracked open in me – I wanted to live – to be part of this terrible, beautiful world.
Fifteen years later, when I returned to the area with a child we were regulars at the Caffe. We were there to hear Rosalie Sorrels sing, If I Could Be the Rain and then help her cook up her famous lasagna for Lena’s birthday. We heard Dave Von Ronk sing his wise cracking blues with his trademark scratchy voice and his fast pickin fingers. We watched sweet Bill Staines spin tales about opossum-humming and The Roseville Fair. There was the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. Lean Spencer was always there. My son Moses acted in many of Lena’s Christmas productions though she always called him Noah.
Later, after Lean died, I served as President of the board of directors. At a time when its survival was tenuous at best, we managed to buy the building and get the Caffe to run in the black (for the first time ever!). While I was there we got talked in to bringing in a new talent – someone tattooed and pierced and I thought, unknown. However the young women went nuts over her. Her name was Ani DiFranco. At the last minute I ended up introducing her because she would not let Al McKinney do it. At that time she wanted to have nothing to do with M-E-N. The main thing I remember about that concert was my shock at her generous sprinkling of the F –word throughout her stage patter. I had brought my young children to the performance and was regretting it. Believe it or not in those days that word still had the ability to shock.
So eleven years ago when Jocelyn showed up, asking lots of questions, we made a connection that is still going strong. She was a junior at Skidmore Collage near by, a tousled, gentle, passionate singer-songwriter and she had this curious idea to write her senior thesis about the history of Caffe Lena. Skidmore even created a special major for her. All those curious questions she liked to ask……? She went around the country interviewing every living person who has ever performed at the Caffe (or almost anyway). And at last, they got us this wonderful book, Caffe Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse.
Check it out!! It is a work of beauty filled with great stories and stunning photographs. It is history and it happened right here in Saratoga Springs. In the process of gathering the stories Jocelyn created the Caffe Lena History project .
The Library of Congress then added the Caffè Lena collection to the National Archive of Folklife Material in Washington, DC.
Come join me for the next concert. Anytime. You really can’t go wrong… folk, roots, blues, jazz, bluegrass… you name it. Come on through those swinging doors and climb the stairs. I’ ll meet you there.