Caffè Lena

Java Jive:
New Box Set and Book Chronicle Caffè Lena’s Ongoing Folk Scene Eminence

With the Coen Brothers’ folk-scene flashback Inside Llewyn Davis imminent on America’s movie screens, a new box set of recordings invites listeners to immerse themselves in a deep and abiding source of the culture’s real-life history.

Live At Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 (Tompkins Square) celebrates the fabled Saratoga Springs venue that helped to launch Bob Dylan’s career. Caffè Lena, which was founded in 1960 by actress Lena Spencer (on the right in this photo taken in the venue, with Dylan and his then-girlfriend, Suze Rotolo) and her then-husband, sculptor Bill Spencer, has never closed. Even after Bill split very early on. Even after Lena’s death in 1989.

“This place was a refuge from what I call the penitentiary of bad taste,” says David Amram, a storied composer and performer who went through a kind of conversion experience when he first played the venue in 1970. “I was knocked out by how wonderful it was. Lena had these incredible dark brown eyes and this low voice. She had the most extraordinary way of introducing people to make them feel appreciated. She had a gift for that, and an incredible love and passion for music and people who made music.”

Amram’s is among the 47 previously unreleased performances on the box set, which features iconic singers such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, as well as contemporary tunesmiths like Tift Merritt and Anais Mitchell. Along with the box, there’s the hardcover book Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, likewise a labor of love by the Caffe Lena History Project. Jocelyn Arem was a sophomore at nearby Skidmore College in 2000 when she discovered the venue and played an open mic night. “I got a taste of a bit of history and was hooked,” she says. “I didn’t find any other clubs that had maintained the same feeling for that long a period. It’s a real testament to her vision that people understood instinctively what she tried to create and carried that forward.” Arem is now a folklorist who directs the Caffè Lena History Project. Along with co-producer Steve Rosenthal, she made selections from some 700 hours of recordings donated by engineers and patrons, now archived at the Library of Congress.

“Lena patterned the place after European coffeehouses and Greenwich Village, but they all became caricatures of themselves,” Arem says. “She wanted to create something that at its core had a lot more values that would be more lasting. Coffeehouse culture in New York City became for the tourists when the folk music boom took off. Lena didn’t pay too much attention to trends but always maintained her vision of a homey environment. Her personal touch became her signature. A lot of artists getting out of the city could let their hair down and relax enough to try new things with their art that they might not have in New York.”

Amram was one of them. His first performance in the 85-seat cafe became pivotal moment in his life. Primarily a classical composer, he found himself before an audience, surrounded by bags of his instruments, inventing music in the moment. “I was stuck all by myself,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to play piano with my back to everybody. To sit with a guitar and make up songs all night was terrifying. But Lena said, ‘No, you really have something special’ and she invited me back. I realized that it was kind of a whole world there I might be able to develop that might help me in my classical work. I could use that folk technique in presenting it so people would feel comfortable and interested.”

It’s no accident that Amram, now 83, titled a 1971 album No More Walls. “It wasn’t [about] breaking down that wall but making you see there is no wall at all,” he says of his new approach. “Lena’s fostered that.”

In compiling the box set, Arem made an effort to not frame Caffè Lena as a purely historical site: Essential as an under-the-radar seedbed of a pop revolution but otherwise a quaint reminder of a pre-digital age of stringed authenticity. To her, the venue and its creative values are back in tune with the times. “It’s really alive every single week,” she says. “It’s important to today’s artists who seem to be more in touch with the do-it-yourself spirit. That mentality is in the air right now. Farmers markets, the spirit of independence is in vogue. Caffè Lena has always been that.”

Not long ago, Amram paid a visit while he was in Saratoga Springs. “I played hooky during Farm Aid,” he says. Another musician had come to talk to him about a classical piece Amram was composing. “He loved it. He sat back in kitchen, as at home there as in the green room at Carnegie Hall.”