Pete Seeger and Caffè Lena

Pete Seeger: “I’ll always remember Lena. What she did is a modern miracle, which may save the world!”

Pete Seeger and Jocelyn Arem (credit: George Ward 2011)

On January 15th, 2011, a cold and brisk winter day in upstate New York, a bounding, energetic 92-year old Pete Seeger greeted us in the snowy driveway of his mountain cabin with these words. Before George and I had set foot out of the car, Pete continued:    “. . .If the human race is still here in a hundred years, it will be the small places that save us!” Welcoming us inside, beckoning us to sit with him by the fireside, he recounted his admiration for the accomplishments of Lena Spencer and her Caffè.

Nearly fifty years earlier, only a few hours from where we sat that day, Pete stopped through Saratoga Springs to pay homage to Lena. On that similarly cold winter day in 1962, he made a point to play her tiny stage after singing to hundreds of fans at a nearby sold-out concert hall. That night, Joe Alper made a few images of Pete strumming a guitar on the Caffè stage. It was later that same year at Caffè Lena where Pete found Bernice Johnson Reagon, who had been discovered and offered her first professional singing engagement by Lena Spencer. Pete called upon Bernice to join the Freedom Singers, which soon became a mainstay of the Civil Rights Movement. The rest as they say is history.

Pete Seeger and George Ward look at Joe Alper's photos of Pete at Caffè Lena (credit: Jocelyn Arem 2011)

Inspired by Lena’s passion for preserving America’s folk music heritage, Pete continued to support her for years afterwards. In 1985 he performed again at her 25th Anniversary. In 1998 his letter in support of a New York State National Parks Service grant helped the Caffè buy its building.

Thanks to our collaboration with the Alper family to digitize and index Joe’s Caffè Lena photos, for the very first time around the warm fireplace in his mountain home, Pete saw the photos from his original 1962 Caffè Lena performance. But it was news of the Caffè’s continued existence that truly excited him. Pete prefers to look forward. With a careful eye checking over our draft book project materials, he pointed at the line “All roads lead to Lena’s” and with the same enthusiasm that first brought him to Lena’s door those many years ago, he quickly added, “and her road might lead to you”.

4 Comments

  1. Dick Weissman
    Mar 15, 2011

    I played Cafe Lena twice, once as a soloist, when Bill and Lena were running things, once with my friend Hedy West. Dave Van Ronk had told me about it. Lena was great, and the audience was attentive.
    Shortly after that, I stopped performing for some years. I still remember Lena’s warmth, and friendship. By the time I resumed performing, I moved to Colorado, so I never have come back. I wish I had come back to tell lena how much it meant to me.

    Dick Weissman

  2. kiyohide kunizaki
    Apr 24, 2011

    from Japan

    in 1967,Pete Seeger came to Japan.Then Woody Guthrie
    died.
    in 1989, Dave Van Ronk came to Japan. Then Lena
    Spencer died.
    Two memorable affair.

    Forever Caffe Lena!

    Kiyohide Kunizaki
    Tokyo Folklore Center

  3. Larry Varley
    May 23, 2011

    I was a membver of Cafe Lena’s,,, the Gallery Players … Lots of fond memories

  4. Kitchen Bitch Crew
    Jun 11, 2011

    KBC 1981 – 1984, Lisa & Donna on the floor; Robin on drinks, Barbara at the sink! Woo Hoo we were the “girls”. Best music, best folks, best times, loved Lina.

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