“Previously Hidden Merits Including Listening” By Emma Munger – Caffè Lena History Project Technical Specialist

Cataloging tapes for the Caffè Lena History Project is a strange process. I sit at my desk in a recording studio basement, surrounded by stacks of dusty, cassette-filled suitcases that have been rescued from various fans’ attics. My job requires me to be willing to listen, really listen, to anything. And it’s not all good. While some performances have stunned me (Dave Van Ronk’s “He Was a Friend of Mine,” or Rosalie Sorrels’ “If I Could Be The Rain”), I’ve also heard plenty of bad jokes, out-of-tune guitars, and flat vocalists. But I really enjoy listening to every tape. I think this is partly because I’m frustrated by the way we listen to music in this digital age. There is so much out there, and most of us barely have the patience to sift through even a fraction of it.

It’s incredibly easy to buy a single song on iTunes and ignore the album it belongs to, or put your iPod on shuffle and listen only to songs you already know and love. We are losing patience because of this efficiency and availability. But I don’t think our capacity for sustained attention has been lost entirely. When patient listening is necessary (at a concert, or trapped in a basement with a box of cassette tapes!), we do it. And it’s rewarding. In some cases, it can expose an artist’s previously hidden merits. Even when that doesn’t happen, it pushes you to commit to something, respond to it, and, hopefully, learn from it. And I’m no longer speaking solely about music. It’s like actually getting to know a person as opposed to just being their Facebook friend—a way to extract actual meaning from something.

Dave Van Ronk puts this well in a 1996 interview: “Now, I don’t use background music. I spend my time up here 999 hours out of a thousand with nothing playing, because I don’t put music on unless I propose to listen to it. I don’t believe in it. You should listen to music the same way you read a book or make love. Whatever thy hand findeth itself to do, do it with all thy might. Including listening.”

My interest in these recordings also has to do with Lena, I think. I never met her, and I don’t even really know what she looks like (other than in the picture below), but after hearing her voice on these tapes every day, I feel like I know her. Some kind of warmth emanates from her—whether it originates in her excessive use of the word “wonderful” or her mellifluous voice, I don’t know, but it’s there. She is appreciated by so many people—the performers she took under her wing, the audience, her coworkers. The only words I’ve heard about her have been gushingly positive. It’s amazing that one person can affect an environment so completely; the whole Caffè lived (and still lives) off of Lena’s energy and spirit. Even after her death, people are still doing things because of her. In a way, that’s something we should all strive to create—a force that propels people into passionate action. So what I’m saying is: it doesn’t matter that every tape isn’t exactly my cup of tea. I listen patiently to each one because I want to be a part of this incredible, intangible thing that Lena created.

As I listen to each tape, I make note of its sound quality and detail its contents (when each song begins and ends, the song title—if announced—the artist/s is playing, and any other information that may not yet have been noted—dates, surprise artists, etc.) All these notes will become part of a database which will contain information about all the Caffe Lena tapes. Ultimately, the database and recordings themselves will be sent to the Library of Congress, and researchers, or perhaps students like myself, will have all this information at their disposal. So, each day I make a small contribution to an extensive project.  I like knowing that these recordings will become widely available. And, as a college student, I can only imagine how exciting it might be to discover a “lost” recording from as far back as 1967 that could be crucial to the completion of a research paper, in the depths of an online database.

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