News / Arts & Entertainment

Coffeehouse Nurtured America's Folk Musicians Over Half a Century

Iconic Coffeehouse Nurtured America's Folk Musicians Over Half a Centuryi
X
December 11, 2013 10:43 PM
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. VOA’s June Soh takes us to Caffè Lena, which calls itself the oldest continuously running folk coffeehouse in the U.S. Carol Pearson narrates.
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.

You May Like

India PM Modi's party distances itself from religious conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote a Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacksi
X
December 19, 2014 12:45 AM
The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

"Soul Lounge" host Shawna Renee catches up with soul singer and songwriter Russell Taylor to hear what he’s been up to since winning the VH1 "You Oughta Know" title in 2013. She also convinces him to share a few songs from his album "War of Hearts."