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The Art of Preservation

Live at Caffe Lena isn’t just a CD box set; it’s a piece of living history

by David Greenberger on November 6, 2013 · 1 comment


We live our life, follow our pursuits, and often only in hindsight is a pattern seen. There is a road from a pivotal juncture in the past to the current moment, filled with potent and robust events from which we may draw new knowledge and inspiration. When Lena Spencer opened Caffé Lena in 1960, it was not with an eye towards its longevity and the history that would be wrapped through and around it. It was a reflection of her wanting to have an endeavor that was sympathetically matched to her own interests. Her interest in live music from the folk tradition in its many strains was shared by a population of both performers and audience members, making the venue viable from the outset (though economically tenuous; the costs were and remain fairly close to the ground in a way that isn’t the case with larger showcase clubs that often fail as prevailing tastes change).

Mississippi John Hurt playing Caffe Lena in 1963. Photo by Joe Alper.

The new three-CD box set, Live at Caffé Lena, has its origins in efforts by Jocelyn Arem. She began researching the venue’s history while a student at Skidmore, and over the course of more than a decade started the Caffé Lena History Project and subsequently the Caffé Lena Archive that is now part of the holdings of the United States Library of Congress. Four years ago she was introduced to Steve Rosenthal, who, among other sonic projects, worked extensively on the Alan Lomax collection. The pair ultimately tracked down some seven hundred hours of recordings spanning the past 46 years. Representing a veritable history of recording formats (from quarter-inch reel-to-reel tapes on through cassettes, DATs, and Internet streaming files), these were all digitized at his New York City studio, the Magic Shop (in the news this past year as the location where David Bowie secretly recorded his new album).

While the 47 performances vary from Tin Pan Alley to Appalachia, Delta blues to cowboy reveries, the human-scaled and acoustic nature of it all makes for a healthy flow. Each disc plays like its own perfect radio hour. The sequencing is so well considered that it draws no attention to itself. Variations are subtle but important as instruments change, solo acts give way to duos and small ensembles. Women’s voices, men’s voices, guitars, banjos—this is a thoroughly considered set that could have turned out a hundred other ways but plays like it could be no other way but exactly as it is.

Though loosely grouped, with five songs from this year on disc three, the set is not arranged chronologically, and this is as it should be. It’s not about the data, it’s about the flow, the continuity. Themes that resonated 50 years ago still do now and likely will 100 years hence. This is because they embrace the fact that, no matter what technological advances surround and support us, we’re not that changed as sentient creatures. We still find ourselves immersed in matters of love, loss, searching, and redemption. We need the comfort and companionship of others. Our need for sustenance in these realms has not changed.

Since Lena’s has been in the same location with the same walls, the sound of the recordings has a similar sonic bearing, a certain clarity and warmth. The room itself becomes apparent in the several songs that find the audience singing along. Lena herself shows up a number of times, introducing performers and, fittingly, has the last word in the set, singing an arrangement of “Dear Little Cafe,” a song she learned from a 78 by Nelson Eddy.

With the endeavor more or less free from the marketplace directives of youth culture, it’s interesting to note that many of the current generation of performers on these discs are actually older than some of the well-known acts from previous decades whose recordings appear here. (For example, Sean Rowe is older than John Gorka was when he played the Caffé in 1990, and the same age as Dave Van Ronk when he commanded the stage in 1974 and was already a decade-and-a-half into his career.) It’s also notable how long-lived many of the artists in this set are. Of the 47 acts, only 11, including Lena, are deceased, with Pete Seeger and Jean Ritchie still performing in their 90s. There may not be anything to learn from that, but it seemed worth noting.

Arem, Rosenthal and the Tompkins Square label are to be lauded—and supported—for their work in preserving this wide swath of American culture. Their efforts located and restored recordings that had been scattered across the continent in closets and cupboards, giving them context by bringing them together in this richly detailed box set, replete with lively notes and incredible photographs.