That home was Caffé Lena.
Jocelyn Arem, author of Caffé Lena, Inside America’s Legendary Folk CoffeeHouse, spent a decade documenting its stage, its woman – Lena Spencer – and the musicians that sprung from both.
It is true: legends beget legends.
smdlr: Its a cappuccino for me and an appropriate bottle of Saratoga Springs water as Jocelyn and I sit for a chat. Jocelyn, we must start with Lena, who was she?
Jocelyn Arem: She was a woman tapping into a movement of folk music and the energy of the people. She started in in 1960 in Saratoga Springs, founded the Caffé on small communities coming together through a shared interest of music – it was an underground culture that was seeing a revival. She was nourishing. Whatever she had, she used to maker her café function.
s: Coffee shops are a center for so much: culture, community, art. Can you speak to how these were part of Lena’s mission?
ja: Musicians stayed with Lena in her home, sometimes for years. She provided a place for artists to be. She saw the Caffé and her mission as bigger than her, it was about having a place for the community.
s: Lets talk about indie and being independent.
ja: Lena was D.I.Y. before D.I.Y. was popular. She was homemade and handmade. She made posters for artists with whatever she had lying around, brewed and served the coffee and when she would introduce the artists to the crowd, she would still have flour on her hands. If she could go bigger she wouldn’t have done it because she wasn’t in a dollar and cents orientated business. She was grassroots and just wanted enough to get by. And, that was the tough part, the café never outgrew that vision, nor did it fail it.
s: Where is your place in the history of Caffé Lena’s vision?
ja: When I first played on the stage, it was on an open mic night. A lot of the artists were much older than I was and they were playing blues music; I was just eighteen.
s: Tell me more about your first night, did anything happen inside of you?
ja: I had a sense of its history but I didn’t understand the scope of what I was walking into. But, there was enough of a spark that first time that I was hooked and I knew something bigger was there. I couldn’t move forward without understanding where the art came from.
s: Today, many of us go to cafes. Do you think most realize the history of where these kinds of spaces come from that allow connection over coffee, art and music.
ja: It’s a good question, a very good question. The folk music of today came of this era, which also included David Amran, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie before they were who they were. Caffé Lena was an easy place to be able to try things out, to take the stage and play – it was a gatekeeper to what many spaces are today.
s: Speaking of a ‘gatekeeper,’ how much of folk music is indebted to Caffé Lena?
There’s not a lot written about Caffé Lena from those days. But, Lena created a place for people to play that weren’t well known and many of them were folk musicians. There was Bob Dylan, and its known he played in small places before he made it to the big ones. Lena was a place that was popular within its community, but it wasn’t a tourist attraction and it didn’t get commercial. Now, its gotten credit on a national level but Lena didn’t want it to lose what it was and that was the tough part. She would focus on known artists as well as the up and coming ones – the same unknown kid was just as valuable to her.
s: You’ve spent a decade of your life documenting Lena and her café. What do you think is its impact on culture and its contribution to it?
ja: Lena’s value was in the things that she brought into a space: family, food and fellowship. At Lena’s you were part of an extended family, the food was local, homemade. The fellowship was diverse and an exchange. You were comfortable enough to express yourself without being censored.
s: What were the aesthetics of Caffé Lena like?
ja: It was a small space but an open spaced which created this atmosphere where artist could try things that they really couldn’t try anywhere else. It was a place to grow, a place where you could go in a new direction if you wanted to. Artists felt like they could expand into new parts of themselves.
s: Our culture through coffee and by extension art and all its branches is changing. You capture a distinct period of time that has so much bearing on the ‘now ’of our culture. How do you want people to receive this decade of work?
ja: I want to present it to an audience of my generation and from the one I’m coming from – I want it to be equal to both.
s: That feels more than fair. Your cheeks have lit up so many times – mine too – during our conversation. What warms you about what you’re now presenting to the world?
ja: First and foremost, I’m happy that I can give it back to the community. I’m able to have a dialogue about something that has been important to so many people. It’s a privilege to document the story and I’m spired to see it shared in different contexts, bring value to peoples lives and do service to Lena.
s: In editing the book, was there a theme, musically, that you hoped to achieve?
ja: I chose to do the book in chronological order. So from 1960, when the café opened up to now in 2013 is how the book moves, as well as the CD and the website. I wanted to organize the history into profiles of artists telling their story, each one giving us a different piece of the puzzle through the diversity of their voices. Additionally, we wanted to reflect the café as a venue as much as possible, so that readers could feel like they were at a different show through each image. Its like a story is told for us who weren’t there to experience the space and the music and I’ve always been interested in stories that haven’t been told.
Photos appear from Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, edited by Jocelyn Arem in collaboration with Caffè Lena, published bypowerHouse Books. Photographs are from ©Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC