Saratoga’s landmark folk music venue — the oldest continuously running folk coffeehouse in the country — turns 60 this year, and like other entertainment venues, Caffe Lena is waiting for the time when it can gather people together again within its storied confines.
Dozens of the genre’s legends and its newer generations got their start here or passed through, from Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie to Sawyer Fredericks and Ani DiFranco. And even when audiences were skeptical—Dylan was heckled during his 1961 appearance, or so the story goes—founder Lena Spencer kept giving new voices a chance.
“One of the best things we’ve done is to stick with that original attitude that Lena had, which was to give musicians a stage early in their career and let them try out new things,” says executive director Sarah Craig, who has been with Caffe Lena for the last 25 years.
“I love to give people their first gig.”
Fredericks was one of those. At age 14, he sang at Caffe Lena’s open mic night and Craig was impressed enough to book him as an opener. But before she had a chance to let him headline at the café, he won “The Voice.”
Here are five more things about Caffe Lena’s past and present that even regulars might not know.
1. Its founders were artists, not musicians—and they never planned to stick around.
Lena Spencer was enamored with theater; her husband, Bill, was a sculptor. They weren’t passionate about music, but they loved the coffeehouse atmosphere, so in 1960, they opened Caffe Lena on a shoestring budget, in a former woodworking shop on the second floor of 47 Phila St. (Lena later created a black-box theater next door.) The couple was planning to stay in town for just a few years, long enough to raise money for a trip to Europe to pursue their art. Instead, Bill left (with a student from Skidmore, where he taught) and Lena never did.
“The café became her family and the central focus of her life,” Craig said. “She ended up having a tremendous influence on the cultural scene in the Capital Region, and also in the wider folk music scene. She took a chance on people early in their careers, and did everything she could to help them move forward.”
Musicians who were just coming onto the folk scene with new sounds and new approaches found their way to Lena’s stage, and went on to become some of the most influential figures in American music—the likes of Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Tom Paxton, along with older musicians who were rediscovered at that time, including Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Clarence Ashley. But by the 1980s, the focus had shifted toward rock, and Lena’s audience was thinner.
“Things had gotten pretty hard and her health was failing, but at the same time the world was beginning to give her the recognition she had earned over the previous decades,” Craig said. These accolades included a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saratoga County Arts Council, an honorary degree from Skidmore College and even a street named after her—nearby Lena Lane.
As the century turned, another folk music revival began. Renamed “roots music,” the genre exploded and, once again, Caffe Lena was on the leading edge.
2. The building has a long history, too.
Constructed in the mid-1890s, the Phila Street building that houses Caffe Lena was originally a boardinghouse; prior to the renovation of the performance space, the outlines of the old rooms were visible on the floorboards. Along with the woodworking shop, which made moldings for buildings around the city, it also housed a laundromat, a junk shop and a bookie joint at one time or another.
The building was owned by one landlord for decades, but in 1997, he decided to retire and gave Caffe Lena one year to come up with the money to buy the place. With support from donors and fundraising, the purchase was made, enabling the café to survive rapidly rising rents in the area. But over the years, it fell into decay to the point that the city declared it would be condemned if it wasn’t renovated.
“We did consider moving at that point, but we determined that the culture of the venue was so inextricably tied to that space where music had been happening for so many decades that it wouldn’t be the same if we left,” Craig recalled. An 18-month capital campaign supported the renovation, while concerts were staged at other venues around the city; the new space—expanded from 85 to 110 seats—reopened in late 2016.
“We had the option of smashing though a brick wall here or there and making a larger, grander performance space, but we decided it needed to stay intimate,” Craig said. “The room is almost like a living entity. People feel a tremendous spirit in that space—musicians feel it onstage and customers feel it when they’re in the seats, and that creates a very special atmosphere.”
3. You can listen to Caffe Lena concerts during Pause NY with the “Stay Home Sessions.”
Over the last month, Craig has been scheduling live viewing parties featuring concerts that were taped during the past three years with the venue’s remote-operated, high-definition cameras.
“We started digging through the archive to find shows we could share for the first time since they happened,” she explained. “We invite the artist to be part of a live chat while we watch, so we’re all able to simultaneously watch together and the audience can interact with performers. It’s like a group of friends hanging out together watching a show, and it actually gives the audience more access to the artists than they would normally have.”
The focus has been on local and regional musicians, and past concerts in the series are still available online. Viewers are encouraged to make small donations, and the revenue is split 50-50 between the performers and the café. Donors have also stepped forward to offer support during the pandemic, Craig said.
4. The café is a nonprofit organization that’s staffed primarily by volunteers.
After Lena’s death in 1989 at age 66, after falling down the stairs at the café, a nonprofit was formed to save the venue and create a plan for moving forward. Craig came on board in 1995 to support the development of the organization, and five years later moved into artistic programming. She’s one of only a handful of paid employees; all the kitchen staff, wait staff and ushers are volunteers, with some 75 in total, ranging in age from 13 to late 70s.
“There’s something very kindhearted and welcoming about having a volunteer staff,” Craig says. “They’re there because they just genuinely love the music and want to be near it and around other people who love music.”
Caffe Lena also arranges community appearances for the performers—free shows at soup kitchens, nursing homes, day care centers and local schools. And the café runs a music school for kids aged 7–12, with a scholarship program that not only defrays the cost of ukulele, fiddle, guitar and banjo lessons, but also gives kids instruments to keep for as long as they’re inspired to play.
While the New York State Council on the Arts provides funding for children’s programming (including free family matinees and weekday programs for toddlers), the café’s revenue comes primarily from ticket sales, donors and sponsors, as well as a membership program. Members get special discounts, early access to ticket sales for popular shows, free appreciation concerts and first dibs on a coveted seat on one of the café’s four couches.
5. Caffe Lena isn’t just about music—it’s always been about inclusion and activism, too.
“The first person who stepped on the stage on opening night at Caffe Lena was a Jewish woman, who was opening for a black man,” said Craig, referring to Maxine Abel and Jackie Washington (now known as Jack Landron). “That was not a happenstance choice for Bill and Lena. They were clearly making a statement: This was a place that embraced feminism, cultural mixing and civil rights.”
Today, the café hosts community conversations focused around social issues, a program in which area residents tell their stories of immigration, and a series of concerts by musicians from non-English-speaking countries. “There’s a tremendous flow of creative and intellectual life through the space,” said Craig. “It’s all about building ties between people.”
Hanging on the wall of the café is a trio of paper-cut works by Brooklyn artist Andrew Benincasa, commissioned during the renovation, which captures the essence of Caffe Lena’s story and its values. The first image depicts the roots of American folk music—the blending of English, Irish and Scottish traditions with the music of Africans brought as slaves to the United States.
Another panel shows the Freedom Singers, a group whose performances supported the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement. The group was founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who first found her voice on Caffe Lena’s stage during a summer she spent working at Hattie’s Restaurant downstairs from the café; she went on to sing at Carnegie Hall and eventually to form Sweet Honey in the Rock.
The third image, showing two performers connected by a web-like, blossoming tree to their diverse audience, represents Caffe Lena today—in Craig’s words, “an eclectic community of music lovers that gathers in this little space and are bound together by songs.”
Tresca Weinstein is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.