There’s a quote by the late Lena Spencer, founder of Caffe Lena, buried in the new coffee-table book about the venue, “Caffe Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse,” that’s prophetic:
“How do you condense, in a few short paragraphs, the memories, the experiences, the love that spans two and a half decades? They’d fill a book, and someday they will.”
For Jocelyn Arem, director of the Caffe Lena History Project, that quote helped set her off on the 11-year journey of compiling and editing the artist interviews and photos that make up the book.
“At the time, when I was hoping to help bring the pieces of the archive together, I thought, well, maybe I can help her to finish the book that she never was able to finish,” Arem said recently backstage at the cafe, holding advance copies of the book and its accompanying three-CD box set, “Live at Caffe Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013.” The box set was officially released on Sept. 24; the book comes out on Tuesday.
Lena as guide
“Pretty early on in the process, I discovered Lena’s autobiography, her unfinished autobiography, and that was like a guide for me, because she started to write about the history of the cafe from her perspective,” Arem continued.
“And that led me to some of the names of the people she had worked with. I followed the bread crumbs, essentially, to other people in the community who could share more of the story.”
Two of those community members — folk historian and musician George Ward and Al McKenney, a close friend of Spencer’s — will join Arem at a talk and book signing titled “Caffe Lena: America’s Coffeehouse” at noon on Thursday at the Saratoga Springs Public Library.
Then, on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 5:30 p.m., Grammy Foundation president (and previous Caffe Lena performer) Scott Goldman will speak at the Tang Museum for the closing of a Caffe Lena photo exhibit and the launch of the book.
Finally, another book launch and signing will be held at the new Northshire Bookstore on Sunday, Oct. 20, at 3 p.m., with Nora Jane Struthers performing. The book, CD release and tie-in events all coincide with what would have been Spencer’s 90th birthday this year.
Arem, who now lives in New York City, is herself a past performer at the cafe. She first came to an open mic night during her freshman year at Skidmore College in 2000, and later performed her first professional gig on the same small stage where legendary singers such as Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Don McLean all got their start.
“Like so many other people, I just fell in love with the story of the place, which I didn’t know a lot about,” Arem said. “[I] felt like I needed to learn more, and that’s how I went down the rabbit hole.”
Trolling the archives
When Arem launched the Caffe Lena History Project in 2002, the cafe’s archives of photos and recordings were scattered in different places, and in different formats. In addition to pulling the material together for the book and CD box set, she has been working to digitize the entire archive. Through a grant from the Mellon Foundation, a searchable online database will be launched sometime next year.
“For years and years,” said Ward, who is also a Caffe Lena board member, “a lot of us [on the board] had thought there was a lot of Caffe Lena memorabilia, but we had no idea how much.
“Several of us had some territorial experience with it, but we thought it would be wonderful if we had a historian. And then here comes this Skidmore senior [Arem] with a senior thesis to write. She interviewed three people — me, Al McKenney and I believe Sarah Craig [Caffe Lena director and talent booker].”
Early on in the process, Arem began working with the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC. Alper, a freelance folk and jazz photographer who died in 1968, and his wife, Jackie, were major proponents of Caffe Lena in its early years in the ’60s, often housing the performing artists in their home. The thousands of Alper photos Arem uncovered formed the basis of the book.
“We ended up discovering almost 7,000 photographs that have never been seen or published,” she said.
“Those images became a map — Lena was a guide, and these images were like a map for learning about the history of the early days. And essentially I just took these images and I researched who was still around and who could share their stories, and I began to interview the people in these photographs, knowing that we could sort of arrange them in this book form and give you a little glimpse into each person’s story.”
The book combines the photographs and artist interviews with passages written by Spencer, as well as reproductions of memorabilia such as fliers and ticket stubs.
Among the artists interviewed are Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary; Loudon Wainwright III and his singer-songwriter progeny Rufus and Martha; Dave Van Ronk; Hedy West; Pete Seeger; Tom Paxton; the late Kate McGarrigle; and Tift Merritt. (Bob Dylan, the cafe’s most famous performer, was not interviewed for the book, but “his management has been very supportive of this project,” Arem said.)
“It’s been a wonderful ride, because among other things, it’s allowed me to reconnect, and reconnect the cafe with a number of people who had been out of touch with the cafe, out of the area,” Ward said. “The cafe’s been around 53 years, so you can imagine.”
Caffe Lena has long hosted theater and poetry events as well as music, and this is reflected in the book as well. The introduction was written by Academy Award-winning actor and director Tim Robbins, who recalls the cafe’s stage as being the first he ever performed on.
“In fact, his father, Gil Robbins, was a member of The Highwaymen, [who performed] ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,’ ” Arem said. “And Tim remembers being at Caffe Lena when he was — I think he says 7 years old.”
The book also ties in with the performances on the CD, which were culled from audience members’ recordings and sound board recordings from as far back as 1967, to as recent as a few months ago. Many of the performances feature introductions by Spencer.
“Some of the really early performances, like by Hedy West, of ‘Shady Grove,’ are just fantastic, because she seems so uninhibited while she’s performing,” Arem said. “And then Kate McGarrigle and Roma Baran, when they’re playing ‘Caffe Lena,’ which is the song written for Caffe Lena — it’s just really special, because you can hear how much they love the venue.”
As Arem goes on sorting through the past, the cafe will continue to promote new artists in the future. Craig has worked to bring in new performers, such as Merritt, in an effort to expand the venue’s reach to those in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
“I want to keep the best of the [old] programming that still works, that feeds that audience and allows those people to keep coming and having fun and feeling familiar,” Craig said.
“But I’ve also really driven towards newness for a few years now. And sometimes I worry almost that I’ve gotten a little bit ahead of our audience. I know that the audience is out there in the Capital District — there are a lot of people who are listening to very interesting acoustic music, and people who are making very interesting acoustic music in the Capital District, and I want that crowd to come here to Caffe Lena and to understand that there’s exciting, bursting creative energy happening here.”
‘Caffe Lena: America’s Coffeehouse’ presentation
When: Noon Thursday
Where: Saratoga Springs Public Library, Harry Dutcher Room, 49 Henry St., Saratoga Springs
How Much: Free
More Info: 584-7860, www.sspl.org
Caffe Lena exhibit closing and book launch
When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tang Museum, Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs
How Much: Free
More Info: 580-8080, tang.skidmore.edu
Book event and celebration dinner
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20
Where: Northshire Bookstore, 424 Broadway, Saratoga Springs; dinner at One Caroline Street Bistro, 1 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs
How Much: book launch free; call One Caroline Street Bistro at 587-2026 by today for dinner reservations
More Info: 682-4200, www.northshire.com
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or [email protected]