Caffe Lena


“Just do it with a whole lot of love.
Not like you are in it to make money, but that you are in it to serve.” –Lena Spencer

About The Caffè Lena History Project

The Caffè Lena History Project began in 2002 as an attempt to assess, explore and add to the documented history of Lena’s Caffè. Fifteen years earlier, Field Horne had worked with Lena’s niece Jan Nargi to organize Lena’s materials, and Doris Armstrong carefully indexed them. In 2003 with the support of a Skidmore College President’s Discretionary Grant and many hours of volunteer help from Caffè friend Jack Reber and advisors George Ward, Al McKenney, Field Horne and Eva Nagel, Caffè Lena Historian Jocelyn Arem began to survey the Lena Spencer Papers held at the Saratoga Springs History Museum, as well as materials collected at the Caffè since Lena’s passing, and develop the first Caffè Lena oral history collection.

In 2005, the Caffè Lena History Project developed these findings into an exhibition of archival material on-site at Caffè Lena to celebrate its 45th Anniversary. After months of planning and organizing archival images, the walls of Caffè Lena became a living monument to its storied past. Copying excerpts from oral history interviews, volunteers recreated bathroom graffiti with quotes celebrating Lena’s musical contributions. Timed to coincide with Skidmore College’s alumni reunion weekend, buses of former Skidmore students arrived to reminisce about Lena’s impact on their college lives. Board members George Ward, Torey Adler, and Jocelyn Arem were interviewed on WMHT Television as a local tie in to the nationally aired Martin Scorcese Dylan documentary “No Direction Home.”

Stemming from the great momentum of this public exhibition, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress officially requested the Caffè Lena collection to join its national archive of folklife material in Washington, DC. 

In 2009 the History Project joined forces with the family of famed folk and jazz photographer Joe Alper to research Joe’s Caffè Lena photographs. Between 1960 and 1968, Joe created over 6,000 compelling photographs at Caffè Lena. This number is just a small sample of the treasure trove of photography he created in his lifetime, capturing folk and jazz festivals and artists including Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bernice Johnson Reagon and hundreds of others in performances, jam sessions, rehearsals, and candid moments. 

The project received funding from various foundations, private donations and fundraisers. In June 2010, a benefit concert spearheaded by “The Lena Ladies” volunteer group, featuring GRAMMY Award-winning songwriter Bill Danoff and Kerrville Folk Festival award winning songwriter Jonathan Byrd, raised funding to support project research.

In 2010, Caffè Lena celebrated its 50th Anniversary with performances by Robin and Linda Williams and Arlo Guthrie, and special introductions by Executive Director Sarah Craig and American Folklife Center Director Peggy Bulger. This event led to the discovery and donation of 100 reels of rare audio recordings created by Andy and Bill Spence at Caffè Lena in the 1960s and ‘70s. The reels are rare glimpses into the recorded history of musical life at Lena’s, yet were quickly deteriorating and in need of preservation to ensure their survival. 

The Caffè Lena History Project interviewed over 150 artists and patrons. Some of the people who shared these stories are famous, but most of them are among the hundreds of everyday folk who passed through those swinging doors on Phila Street and were forever changed by Lena’s nurturing spirit.

In 2013, the project resulted in the publication of a Caffè Lena book - the first major showing of Joe Alper’s work in over five decades, framed by accompanying first hand Caffè Lena History Project interviews edited by Jocelyn Arem, a 3-CD box set featuring selections from the accumulated 700 hours of live audio recordings, and an exhibition of ephemera and Joe Alper photographs. 

In 2014, the project released the first complete Caffè Lena digital database. This project brings together diverse archival materials related to American music and social history, and the transformational movements of the 1960s era. Documented subjects include Civil Rights pioneers and community activism; New York architectural history; the Fox Hollow, Newport Folk and Jazz festivals; urban expansion; and the careers of influential folk musicians Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Ani DiFranco, actor Spalding Gray, early 20th-century photographer Joe Alper, and activist and union organizer Utah Phillips. Also included in the project are the personal papers of Lena Spencer relating to the Industrial Workers of the World, Northeast Jazz history, Yaddo Artists Colony, postwar Italian American cultural history, and the New Left era. The bulk of the material dates from 1959 to 1989. These archives describe how the American folksong movement was organized and functioned largely around the proliferance of coffeehouse venues as sites of shared cultural expression and political change, and documents the Caffè’s unique role in the labor, Civil Rights, and women’s movements and its relationship to national music trends. The collection contains rare and ephemeral folk music publications, journals, pamphlets, and newspapers, most of which are not available in North American research libraries, promotional materials, memoirs, posters, correspondence, original manuscripts, notes, illustrations, reviews, recordings and photographs.

© 2013 Jocelyn Arem.


About Caffè Lena

Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York is widely recognized as America’s oldest continuously running folk music coffeehouse. The Library of Congress deemed it “a national treasure”. Caffè Lena was born during the peak of the period known as the Folk Revival. During the 1960s in Greenwich Village, Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere, coffeehouses opened up to give a stage to authentic old time singers, as well as to young artists recreating or borrowing from traditional styles. Greenwich Village had the Gaslight, the Bitter End and Gerde’s Folk City, and was the home turf of Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs. Boston had Club 47, which introduced Joan Baez and Tom Rush. San Francisco had The Hungry I, which offered The Kingston Trio and Tom Lehrer and The Limeliters. And Saratoga Springs had Caffè Lena.

In 1958, thirty-five-year-old actress Lena Spencer left the home she shared with her parents and brothers in Milford, Massachusetts, quit a position at a radio station in Boston where she’d met John F. Kennedy on his inaugural tour and moved with her new husband Bill Spencer into a second-floor loft building at 47 Phila Street in Saratoga Springs, New York. Inspired by the local Skidmore College scene and the burgeoning folk revival movement, they were determined to create a successful American folk coffeehouse and theater with a European feel and a nurturing, home-like atmosphere.

From 1960 to Lena’s passing in 1989 (Bill Spencer left Lena and the Caffè in 1962), Caffè Lena presented prominent performers of the American folksong movement on its tiny stage, and theater productions in its Gallery Theater, now known as the Black Box Theater. Lena Spencer exposed hundreds of artists to new audiences at her Caffè, making music history and a name for herself in American cultural history. Her spirit lives on in the still active Caffè Lena, which continues to present new artists today.

Caffè Lena’s roster includes many notable names in folk music and theater history. Yaddo artist community writers and poets dropped in, as did Skidmore College students, actor John Wynne Evans, activist and folk radio DJ Jackie Alper, photography legend Joe Alper, Jackie Washington (who with Sue Abel performed first on the Caffè Lena stage in May, 1960), Hedy West, Carolyn Hester, and the Wildflowers Music Collective. A longtime friendship with folk and blues singer Dave Van Ronk led to early bookings with elderly Delta blues legends Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James for some of their very last public performances, and the first booking of Bob Dylan outside of New York City. In the early 1960s, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon had her very first public singing engagement at Caffè Lena. Pete Seeger dropped by to perform. Noel Stookey performed there before his Peter, Paul and Mary fame. Kate and Anna McGarrigle traveled from Canada to play at Lena’s, while Jean Redpath, Jacqui McDonald and Bridie O’Donnell came from overseas in the UK. Spalding Gray, Liz LeCompte, and David Hyde Pierce cut their acting chops in the Caffè Lena theater. Don McLean performed regularly at Lena's well before his "American Pie" fame, inspiring a longstanding legend that he penned the tune in Saratoga Springs. In 1973 he took Lena as his special guest to the GRAMMY awards. In later years, Utah Phillips (always introduced by Lena as “the golden voice of the great southwest”), Emmylou Harris, Ani DiFranco, the Gibson Brothers, David Amram, the Greenbriar Boys, Garrett “G.Love” Dutton and many hundreds of other folk, country, blues, bluegrass, traditional artists, poets and actors would join the scene. While focusing primarily on folk music, Lena Spencer was also a fan of jazz and presented a number of notable jazz artists, including Bucky and John Pizzarelli, jazz violinist Joe Venuti, and the Capitol District's own Nick Brignola and Lee Shaw. More recent concerts with Jeremy Kittel, Frank Vignola, Al Gallodoro, and John Jorgenson have kept the Caffè's jazz roster growing. Lena’s artist list continues to grow each year.

Lena Spencer and her Caffè continued through the 1970s with a growing role as one of the central figures and institutions of the folk music world. As some of the folk revival clubs dropped away, including Gerde’s and the Gas Light, Caffè Lena inherited the status of longest continuously operating folk club in the country and Lena herself began to achieve legendary status.

In 1985 on the occasion of Caffè Lena’s 25th Anniversary, Pete Seeger performed alongside Nanci Griffith and a ten-year-old Rufus Wainwright at a public concert to honor Lena’s contributions. That year the Kennedy Center called to congratulate Caffè Lena on its longstanding role in America’s music history. In the two years before she died, Lena received an honorary degree from Skidmore College, and the Saratoga Springs Arts Council’s first Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1989, Filmmaker Stephen Trombley, in association with PBS and the BBC, filmed a documentary entitled “Caffè Lena,” narrated by Kate McGarrigle, which aired on WMHT television. Lena’s on-screen debut as an actress came in 1987 when she acted opposite Meryl Streep, Tom Waits, and Jack Nicholson in Ironweed, a feature film based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Albany, New York author William Kennedy.

Upon Lena's death in 1989, Caffè Lena was converted to a non-profit institution, which today continues as a living legend. A major fundraising campaign in 1998 with private donations and a grant from the NYS Department of Parks and Recreation enabled Caffè Lena to buy its building. Today, Caffè Lena is run by a small paid staff, a Board of Directors, and an ever-evolving team of volunteers from the ages of 13 to 75. It presents over 400 events annually and serves approximately 12,000 people per year. The Caffè is proud to stay true to Lena's founding vision of simplicity, kindness to strangers, and art above profit. Caffè Lena is an intimate setting with a concert hall atmosphere where people come to enjoy performances by the top players in the field. Three shows per weekend feature traditional and contemporary folk, blues, jazz and ethnic music by nationally and internationally touring professional musicians. Weekly programming includes an "Emerging Artist Breakout", which allows teens to enjoy concerts by their peers in a genuine club setting that is free of alcohol and smoke. Caffè Lena's weekly open mic has been running for twenty-five years. A supportive and attentive multi-generational audience is on hand every week to enjoy the work of both seasoned and novice performers. Caffè Lena maintains an active poetry program, with monthly open mics, an annual poetry festival, and occasional readings by nationally known poets throughout the year. The Albany Capital District’s only open mic exclusively for storytellers takes place at Caffè Lena every other month. Please visit the Caffè Lena “Calendar” link at for upcoming shows.

Fifty years after the folk revival, a new generation of musicians and music enthusiasts is discovering the sounds that have sprung up from America’s common experiences. About 25% of Caffè Lena’s roster consists of artists performing at the Caffè for the first time. Many of its artists headline major festivals and play regularly in large concert halls. The opportunity to see nationally touring performers in the historic, intimate, living room like setting of the Caffè keeps the seats filled and the interest strong.

In 2008, the International Folk Alliance recognized Caffè Lena with its annual “Best Small Venue” award (co-awarded that year to Berkeley, CA venue The Freight and Salvage). In the same year, the Library of Congress acquired the Caffè Lena archival collection for inclusion in the American Folklife Center. In 2010, Caffè Lena celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a sold-out concert by Arlo Guthrie and Robin and Linda Williams at Skidmore College’s Arthur Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs. The evening began with an introduction by Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Bulger, Director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, also a Caffè Lena musical alumnus.

The Caffè Lena archives include 7,500 period photographs, original archival memorabilia and over 100 reel-to-reel tape recordings, documenting hundreds of folk artists who performed at Caffè Lena from the 1960s to the present. The Caffè Lena History Project is dedicated to preserving and cataloging Caffè Lena’s collection, researching and digitizing archival photographs, and gathering oral history interviews honoring Lena’s legacy in American cultural history, as the Caffè continues to present and inspire new generations of artists today.

© 2013 Jocelyn Arem, Edited by Sarah Craig and George Ward.