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

China Investigates Former Powerful Security Chief

Former security chief and member of Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, under investigation for suspected 'serious disciplinary violation' More

India, US Look to Reset Ties During Kerry Visit

This week's talks will be first high level interaction between two countries since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge More

Video Young African Leadership Program Renamed to Honor Mandela

YALI program, launched by President Obama in 2010, aims to build skills in business, entrepreneurship, public management and civic leadership More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller has made a name for herself appearing with such high-profile artists as Beyonce, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Tia and her quartet performed music from her CD “Angelic Warrior” on our latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."