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Coffeehouse Nurtured America's Folk Musicians Over Half a Century

  • June Soh

Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, is far from America's musical hot spots of Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles and even New York City. But over the past five decades, a small coffeehouse there has hosted thousands of folk music and other acoustic concerts and helped many of America’s best-loved artists launch their careers. Caffè Lena calls itself the oldest continuously running folk coffeehouse in the U.S.

Oliver Cravens and two friends formed the The Stray Birds folk group two years ago. They were recently feature performers at the coffeehouse for the first time.

"It is an honor to be on the same stage and the same space as some of the people who have inspired us to always do what we do," he said. "We will be happy to keep coming back to Caffè Lena."

Lena Spencer and her husband Bill opened the coffeehouse in 1960. Bill left two years later, but Lena kept the doors open until her death in 1989. Steve Kovacik began performing on open mike nights 27 years ago, and has been a patron ever since.

"With musicians she [Lena Spencer] was very nurturing and very encouraging but she was also demanding," he said. "If you were a performer on the main stage doing a showcase you had to be able to deliver well, or she wasn’t happy.'

After Spencer’s passing, the Caffè became a non-profit organization. All the workers are volunteers. Sarah Craig, the group’s director, has run the club since 1995.

“When she died, everybody realized that, as much as they missed Lena, they just couldn’t let the club go," she said. "So they raised money to pay off the debts that the Caffè had at that time, and they developed the non-profit legal status."

For over 50 years, Caffè Lena has introduced thousands of folk musicians to audiences. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan is one of many who went on to fame and fortune.

“I think at this point the reputation of the club is such that if you want to be playing in the folk circuit in the United States, it is kind of one of those places that you have to stop and play," Craig said.

A new book and CD set celebrate the club's history and Lena Spencer's legacy. They are the result of extensive research by Jocelyn Arem, who first visited the club as a college music student.

“I remember walking up the stairs with my guitar over my shoulder and feeling like this place had a much bigger story that I wanted to know about," she said. "I recorded over 150 interviews over a 10-year period with musicians around the country and the photography collection we drew from for the book was 6,000 images."

Arem also recovered 700 hours of audio tapes that were recorded at the club from the early 1960s through the present. She recently delivered them to the Library of Congress, where Todd Harvey is the American Folklife specialist.

“We are especially grateful such a wonderful documentation has been done," he said. "These will allow researchers to look at decades of traditional music performance and contemporary song composition and really get a sense of how these genres have evolved in the United States."

Next to the Caffè is a street named Lena Lane, commemorating the club and its founder who became a local legend.

This is a special place. Nurturing of new talent is still a strong part of the Caffè. I think it is great. I hope it keeps going forever after we are gone," said Steve Kovacik.