CLHP Intern Blog: Martha Snow

Food trucks and Friendly Ghosts

I first heard about the Caffè Lena History Project through an advertisement in the Skidmore College email system, and was immediately interested. I have grown up in a family that has always cherished music, and as an American Studies major, I am fascinated by the way that humanity can be found in the past and related to the present, and the stories that still hold resonance and weight in modern society. This past semester, I took a class whose central theme was “Community,” where we asked fundamental questions about what creates and sustains a community, what values bind them together, and what forces have the potential to break them apart. I had heard of the strong community created around Caffè Lena, and wanted to know more.

But I have a confession to make. Attending the Woody Guthrie tribute show two weeks ago was only my second visit to the Caffè. I had been in once before, in the whirlwind of college freshman outings, trying to get to know my new city by visiting as many hometown haunts in one day as I could. But due to the nature of my brief visit, Caffè Lena didn’t stand much chance of leaving an impression. When I returned this summer with my parents, I began to understand why the stories I’ve gotten to know in the Caffè Lena oral history interviews I’ve recently spent so much time with were so heartfelt, so committed.

It is because it felt personal. The walls seemed to surround and envelope me like a warm hug, the sounds comforting and familiar. Walking up the stairs and seeing pictures of artists lacquered to the wall whose folders I’d spent hours cataloging and recording felt like seeing a lifelong pen pal, someone who you share your intimate secrets with but without the hope of ever being able to meet. I sat with strangers at a table but our common joy in listening to the music and sometimes sharing a verse or two made us feel like friends. An unspoken bond seemed to connect us all.

From day one, working with the Caffè Lena History Project for me has been about the details: a brick house, a poster fraying at the edges, a wedding photo. Each one unassuming, sitting peacefully in the Caffè Lena archives, surprising me with their candor, reminding me of childhood loves and spaces I never could have imagined otherwise. As I sort through the files and listen to the interviews, I am surprised again and again by the small ways in which the spirit of the Caffè remains in these pages.

I have found the most joy in working with the archive files in the small discoveries. Finding out that Christine Lavin, a childhood hero of mine, had played at the Caffè, allowed me to re-experience a musician in a different way: watching her career in its earliest stages at Caffè Lena through posters and letters, and imagining how her experience here might have shaped her later work that I had come to love so much. The joy of these folders has also been in their quiet intimacy: even in artists I did not know as well, through wedding photos, birth announcements, photos, and cards, I felt as if I had stepped into their lives. Files like David Amram’s reveal so much about his relationship with Lena, his commitment to the Caffè, and paint us a beautiful portrait of a life evolving, a family transforming, a performer maturing, all under the roof of Caffè Lena. It seems that whether performers returned to the Caffè or not, a note of their song always nestled in the corners like friendly ghosts.

My work has also allowed me to imagine Saratoga in a way I never had before. In an interview with Tony Markellis, he mentioned the Wildflower Collective, a group of musicians from the Caffè who banded together in the 1960s and lived in a brick house on Grand Avenue. I remember distinctly when he said Grand, my heart fluttered a little.

I had a close friend who currently lives in a brick house on Grand Avenue, I thought, is there any chance it could be the same one? Had the house where I had spent many summer days cooking, reading on the porch, playing pool, been the same one house they lived in 40 years ago? This thought gave me more appreciation for the richness of the history of Saratoga than anything else had before. The idea that this was real, this had actually happened, here, if not on this stoop then just a few down from it, the hope, the idealism, the community. And it wasn’t walled off, it continued, an uncelebrated piece of history, a friendly ghost, a tangible and concrete memory.

These details, and many more, have given me a deep appreciation for Saratoga that I had been looking for since I first started at Skidmore. They allowed me to peel away the anonymity, the cold exterior of a tourist city and find the quirks, the intimacy I had been craving.

With this new view of Saratoga has also come a more complex vision of the Caffè. Working with interviews like those with Erin McKeown offered me a view not only into the Caffè as it was known in the past, but also how it is now, in negotiating its identity in a changing technological and musical world. Erin offered up rhetorical questions that drew an analogy between the food truck/slow food movement and the folk music revolution. She asked:

“. . .Where do these [small] venues fit into what is a very hip movement in food; which is about being local, knowing where your food comes from? How does that fit with music; which is about the place where you see music in town? And how do you relate to the people that are making the music that you’re consuming? It’s like knowing your farmer.”

This summer, I am also working on a local organic farm, and for this reason, her comparison resonated with me especially. Placing the Caffè in the context of its community, and thinking critically about how its members are relating to it today, has shown me that the Caffè continues to hold as much importance now as it did when it first opened in 1960, and has reaffirmed the value of my work this summer.

Each small discovery, each hidden treasure, has given me a clearer picture of an artistic community that can easily go unnoticed if you don’t look carefully. And in this community are people who remain dedicated to a past that they hope can inform the present, a simple human experience that can get us all away from our smartphones long enough to have a root beer float and join together in a chorus of song. Erin McKeown said it best:

“And so, maybe, Caffè Lena is the food truck that’s always been there, you know what I mean?”

Yes, I think it just might be.

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