The GRAMMY Foundation Honors and Preserves Caffè Lena: A Story in Three Parts

Thanks to generous support from the GRAMMY Foundation, the CLHP in partnership with Magic Shop Studio in New York City began an initiative to digitize and preserve over 700 hours of newly discovered audio material recorded at the venue beginning in the 1960s. Dusty tapes (described in blogs HERE and HERE) with “Pete Seeger” and “Sleepy John Estes” scribbled on them, unheard for decades, are seeing new light. We couldn’t be more grateful to the GRAMMY Foundation for making this work possible.

In February, I flew across the country to Los Angeles, California on behalf of Caffè Lena to attend a special GRAMMY week event hosted by Sharon Osbourne, “One Night Only – A Celebration of the Live Music Experience.” The event honored small venues including the Grand Ole Opry, CBGBs, and The Apollo, with a special feature on Caffè Lena, honorary recipient of the GRAMMY Foundation’s prestigious grant program.

Jocelyn Arem with makeup artist Annie Tevelin. Los Angeles, California

Ten years into my journey researching Lena’s story, 2,900 miles away from snowy Saratoga Springs, it was a surreal experience to sit in the fourth row of the Saban Theater and listen to an international celebrity entrepreneur and host of “America’s Got Talent” introduce the little Caffè founded by Lena Spencer, underground entrepreneur and host of America’s greatest songwriting talent. I couldn’t help but wonder what Lena might think.

Sharon Osbourne introducing Caffè Lena.

Caffè Lena Slideshow at GRAMMY Event featuring image by Joe Alper.

Scott Goldman - GRAMMY Foundation Vice President and Jocelyn Arem at GRAMMY Event.

As is happens, a few months before the GRAMMY event I’d been flipping through a Skidmore College Theater Department alumni newsletter (I graduated as a self-determined Ethnomusicology Major, but started out as a Theater major for exactly one semester) and found an update from Scott Goldman, Vice President of the GRAMMY Foundation. Curious, I wrote to the GRAMMY Foundation and was connected to fellow Skidmore College alum Scott. Not only did he know about Lena’s, but during his time at Skidmore Scott played there on several occasions. A few decades apart in school, we discovered a shared connection to the mystical venue and its profound impact on our lives. Scott told me: “Caffè Lena holds an important place in the folk and traditional music communities. For me it was the gateway to so many things I hold dear about music and performance.”

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Rufus Wainwright in GRAMMY Video

A few months after the event, the GRAMMY Foundation decided to feature Caffè Lena again in a special PSA video on their website highlighting the Foundation’s grant program. Rufus Wainwright signed on to narrate the PSA and share his own memories of the Caffè and Lena. When Rufus speaks about his late mother Kate McGarrigle playing at Lena’s, and his early singing appearance at Lena’s 25th Anniversary, he lights up. Thanks to the hard work of Kelly Darr and Kate Allen at the GRAMMY Foundation, with support from photographers Joe Alper, Joseph Deuel, Katharine McKenna, Thom Wolke, and Mark Beckerman, footage by Jessica Wolfson and support from Magic Shop Studio, the video is now posted on the GRAMMY Foundation and CLHP websites. It’s incredibly fun to see newly discovered archival audio recordings, photographs, and current video footage from the CLHP brought together in this way to help tell Lena’s vibrant story.

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On a chilly east coast evening in November, I’m reflecting back on these events after meeting up with Rufus Wainwright in Durham, North Carolina earlier this month. Thanks to the GRAMMY Foundation’s support, I was able to share with Rufus a newly digitized archival version of his mother Kate McGarrigle’s’s song “Heart Like a Wheel” from Lena’s archives. This past weekend in New York City, Rufus and Martha Wainwright premiered their documentary film “Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You” to honor Kate. It’s truly an honor to help Rufus and Martha honor their mother’s musical legacy, and at the same time fill in another piece of Lena’s history.

Every day, the engineers at Magic Shop Studio uncover another piece of buried treasure in the Lena recordings collection, and our search for recordings continues.

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