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

Mood Tense Ahead of Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, 'No' voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve, 'Yes' vote not worth the risk More

South Africa’s 'Open Mosque' Admits Everyone, Including Critics

Open Mosque founder plans to welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Graham Nash has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once for his work with The Hollies and once as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The legendary folk-rocker joins "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his latest project, “CSN 2012,” which captured on video recent live performances by Crosby, Stills & Nash.