loose in the café: George Ward, Jocelyn Arem, and Torey
Photo: John Whipple
By Miriam Axel-Lute
Roads Lead to Lena’s
student thesis gone wild gives the Caffe Lena community a
gift—its own history
Arem first came up the precipitous, well-worn stairs of Saratoga
Springs’ Caffe Lena in her early years at Skidmore, about
five years ago. She probably wasn’t thinking about how the
café’s collection of small round tables and well-loved chairs
that don’t seem like they would seat 80 but do had been there
since 1960, or why the café had managed to survive the death
of its founder, Lena Spencer, or what it meant that there
were still people in town who thought of it as “that beatnik
place.” The couple of historical tidbits that many people
know—that the venue offered Bob Dylan his first show on his
first tour (he wasn’t well received), or that “American Pie”
was first performed there—may have run through her head. But
A songwriter, she was more likely thinking of the songs she
was about to play at the open-mic night. But those questions,
and dozens more about the history of the café, have rarely
been far from her mind for the past three years. Arem, as
so many other young musicians and music lovers have, quickly
fell in love with the café as a place to experience and learn
about music that struck a deeper chord than what she’d been
hearing on the radio.
She eventually blended this love with her love for history
into a self-directed major in ethnomusicology, with a thesis
on the history of Caffe Lena. “I basically structured my entire
program around Caffe Lena,” she jokes.
Torey Adler, who has been a professional musician for many
years now, also found the café during his time at Skidmore,
starting around 1991. He says it opened his eyes to “a whole
music industry the music industry ignores,” and honors a set
of values that are not common in the world at large, especially
open-mindedness and acceptance. “The open mic here is weird,”
he adds. “No one gets heckled. No one gets talked through.
People may be up there who don’t really know how to tune a
guitar. . . . They may be 13 and can’t really sing on pitch,
but they don’t get talked through.”
George Ward, a regional folklorist and musician who first
came to Caffe Lena in fall of 1960, a few months after he
graduated from college, is a little quieter, but no less enthusiastic
about the value of the café. His kids grew up around the café.
(There’s a picture in the exhibit of one of his sons at a
very young age, playing guitar with Dave Van Ronk. “It was
totally unscripted,” recalls Ward.) He was among the people
“of whom there was a small horde” who converged on the café
when city code officials shut the place down in 1968 (“officially
for code violations, unofficially because somebody in city
government had it in for Lena”), and removed the bricked-in
wood stove and installed a real furnace. He has bussed tables,
washed dishes, performed, and served on the board.
When Ward talks with Adler and Arem, he smiles the smile of
someone who has been deeply involved in a community for a
long time and sees future generations stepping forward firmly
to take the reins.
Together these three board members represent only a few slices
of the diverse set of people who patronize the café. There
are those who come for the black-box theater, those who show
up once a year for a particular artist or type of show, those
who play the open mics, those who come to hear new kinds of
music in an intimate atmosphere, those who socialize by volunteering
Knowing that there were all these threads, and that many of
them knew little about the others, Ward, Adler and Arem, along
with many others at the Caffe, thought perhaps the research
Arem was doing could go beyond a college thesis. Ward and
Adler stepped in to help Arem find sources, do interviews,
and turn her results into a detailed exhibit that is currently
on display throughout the café. An extensive oral history
collection is underway (check out www.caffelenahistory.org
to see some of the stories that have been submitted online,
or add your own recollections). People have come out of the
woodwork to contribute. “People remember their visits here,”
One wall of the exhibit is devoted to a selection of photos
of the many well-known artists who performed, and often got
an early boost, at the café, including: Ani DiFranco, whose
first show at Lena’s had six people in attendance (at least
according to Adler’s memory); Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder
of Sweet Honey in the Rock; Mississippi John Hurt and Skip
James, some of the original Delta bluesmen; Odetta; Emmylou
Harris; Nanci Griffith.
I love about this exhibit is that it goes farther toward portraying
all the many kinds of cross-currents that pass through this
place than anything else ever has,” says Ward. “There is no
one Caffe Lena.”
A room in the back is devoted specifically to Lena Spencer
herself, whose memory still looms large over the café she
founded, tended through near constant financial crisis, and
for a long time lived in when she couldn’t afford an apartment.
Her pickiness when it came to performers and yet constant
encouragement of young artists, her love of theater and visual
art, and her complete devotion to the café and its many projects
are still legend, 16 years after she died and a nonprofit
formed to keep the café going.
Arem, who never met the café’s namesake, says she frequently
guided her research with the mantra “WWLD—What Would Lena
Do?” “She’s always sitting on my shoulder.”
written on the bathroom walls: Torey Adler one of the
Caffe Lena restrooms, where people are now being encouraged
to write memories on the walls, in homage to earlier
traditions of grafitti.
all those pieces of history, facts, and stories out of individual
heads and Café archives and woven into one cohesive history
is not just an interesting exercise. It will be essential
for keeping the spirit of the café on the right track for
the future, says Adler. “Sometime, somebody’s going to be
a director [here] who never knew anyone who knew Lena,” he
says. “There’s going to be this resource for them to understand
what this place really is.”
Which isn’t to say that what Caffe Lena is doesn’t change
with the times. The legions of folk music lovers who attend
the café may think of the Lena’s slogan that appears on bumper
stickers all over the region—“Good Folk since 1960”—as referring
to the music at least as much as to the people. But while
the double entendre was surely intended, Adler and Arem are
quick to reprimand any reference to Lena’s being solely, or
even centrally, a folk club.
were having a conversation recently about this at a board
meeting,” recalls Adler. “We were talking about ‘What is our
kind of music?’ It’s not acoustic—we’ve had some great electric
bands here, some great rock stuff. . . . It’s not folk—we’ve
had jazz, classical, punk. . . . At the same time we all agreed
we weren’t going to see the next Christina Aguilera or Britney
Spears here. Artists here . . . it’s not just entertainment;
they have something to say. And they’re part of a tradition
in one way or another.”
A minute later he comes back to this thought. “Maybe folk
music is a different thing now that the Rolling Stones are
farther back than Woody Guthrie was when this place opened.”
It’s trying to escape the lingering hippie/beatnik pigeonhole
rather than any dislike of folk music that makes the café
board members quick to emphasize its diversity. When Arem
went with Al McKenney, whom she describes as the embodied
Caffe Lena archives, to look for Lena memorabilia he thought
he’d left in his old apartment, which was in a now vacant
building, the security guards who accompanied them were incredulous
that anyone would be this interested in the history of Caffe
Lena. “They were like, ‘What do want to go through this stuff
for? What is this café, isn’t that that beatnik place?’ They
actually said ‘beatnik,’ ” recalls Arem.
Adler sees an irony in that exchange. “I’ll bet that there’s
a 50-50 chance that they’re Bruce Springsteen fans,” he says.
Adler recently went down the list of “walk-in” music Springsteen
has selected to play in the stadiums before he goes on stage,
and counted about 20 artists who have played Caffe Lena, many
regularly. “Obviously he’s listening to this stuff. If these
people weren’t here because they didn’t have a place like
this to make a living in, we might not have artists like Bruce
Springsteen,” says Adler. “He may not have been in the café,
but he’s obviously benefited from it.” He pauses. “I like
to say all roads lead back to Lena’s.”
The Caffe Lena board is using the history project to set a
stage for an ambitious fund-raising drive to renovate the
old building and make it handicap-accessible. The goal over
the next few years is to find enough people who know they’ve
benefited from it to raise half a million dollars to put into
“what is really a very old building,” adding an elevator,
moving and expanding the kitchen, and doing various other
needed upgrades to the space.
The board full of musicians shows a little nervousness about
the magnitude of the effort, but certainly not enough to reconsider
the board’s unconventional lack of wealthy membership. “No,
we don’t have any major socialites on our board,” says Adler.
“But we have very little overhead and accomplish a whole lot.
. . . The café is going to be here in 100 years.”
PARK (Saratoga Springs, 587-3241). Tue: Soul Session.
PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (Saratoga State Park, Saratoga
Springs, tickets: 476-1000). Fri: Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Sat: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Black
ROOFTOP CONCERTS (Rooftop patio, Tang Teaching Museum
and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs). Fri:
Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers.
MAPLE AVENUE (9 Maple Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-CLUB).
Fri: Adrian Cohen Quartet. Sat: Nitro Jive.
THE ALLEY BAR (Long Alley Road, Saratoga, 587-9766). Tue:
karaoke with Mark the Shark.
(Phila and Putnam streets, Saratoga Springs, 583-6060).
Thu: Juan & Corbin. Fri: Bluz House Rockers.
Sat: Rich Ortiz. Sun: Chuck Kelsey.
RESTAURANT (390 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-6262).
Wed: Bobby Dick & the Sundowners. Thu: Franklin
Micare. Fri: Sanding Room Only. Sat: the Heaters.
Sun: Al Bruno.
LENA (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-0022). Thu:
open mic (7 PM). Fri: Chris Shaw. Sat: Stacey Earle
& Mark Stuart. Sun: Martha Gallagher with Brian
CAFÉ (392 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-1106). Thu:
Robanic Reggae and Carribean Band. Fri: DJ Dance
Party. Sat: karaoke with A-Man Productions.
CAROLINE (13 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 580-0155).
Thu: karaoke. Fri: DJ. Sat: DJ. Tue: karaoke.
CLUB HOUSE (30 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 580-0686).
Fri-Sat: DJ Daniel Van D, hiphop, club mixes.
STEAKHOUSE (63 Putman St., Saratoga Springs, 581-7011).
Mon: Blues open mic. Tue: George Fletcher’s Bourbon Renewal.
O’DWYER’S (15 Spring St., Saratoga Springs, 583-6476).
Fri: Zen Tricksters, Rich Ortiz.
GAFFNEY’S (16 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 587-7359).
Thu: Mikki Bakken & Friends. Fri: Johnny &
The Triumphs. Sat: Don Hommel & Friends. Sun:
INN (1 Gridley St., Saratoga Springs, 587-4909). Thu:
Good for the Soul. Fri: Burners U.K. Sat:
Bluz House Rockers. Sun: Sonic Mayhem.
Mon: Jeff Walton.
INN AT SARATOGA (231 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-1890).
Sat: Ria Curley Jazz Quartet. Wed: Georgie Wonders
TAVERN (241 Union St., Saratoga Springs, 584-9643). Fri:
the Raven Society, Valley, Lucia Lie.
Sat: Vee Chambers.
(14 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-3209). Fri: T &
A Band. Sat: Ginger Brothers.
CAROLINE STREET (1 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 587-2026).
Fri: Chuck D’Aloia. Sat: Dave Payette, Peg Delaney
Duo. Sun: Joe Gitto. Mon: Dave Gleason.
Tue: Masters of Nostalgia. Wed: Peg Delaney.
PARTING GLASS (40-42 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-1916).
Mon: The OTB Band. Tues: Celtic Session. Wed: The
CITY TAVERN (Caroline Street and Maple Avenue, Saratoga
Springs, 581-3230). Fri and Sat: DJ Chris. Sun: Acoustic
open-mic night with Rick Bolton. Tues: Dark Day Blues
with George Fletcher’s Bourbon Renewal. Wed: Happy
Hour with Jeff Halsted.
(168 Lincoln Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-4030). Thu: Bobby
Dick and the Sundowners. Fri: The Refrigerators.
Sat: Milo Z. Sun: Soul Session. Mon: Rock
Velvet. Wed: Blue Hand Luke.
Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), Congress
Park, Saratoga Springs. A humorous run through the works of
the Bard. 7/30, 6 PM; 7/31, 2 PM. Free. 884-4947.
Saratoga Arts Center, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. The
children’s play about the wooden puppet. 8/2, 11:30 AM and
2 PM. $7, kids 12 and under $5. Call for reservations. 584-4132.
Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga
Springs. 8/3, 8:15 PM: Charles Dutoit conducts the Philadelphia
Orchestra in their opening night at SPAC. With special guest
Itzhak Perlman. Works by Beethoven and Bartók (Concerto
for Orchestra). $60-$15. 587-3330.
Little Theater, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga
Springs. 8/2, 8:15 PM: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), François
Leleux (oboe) and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) will perform
works by Poulenc, Franck and Beethoven. $34.50-$29.50. 587-3330.
Center Gallery, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-4132.
Saratoga Inside Out. Through 9/3. Receptions 8/4, 6-9
PM, and 9/1, 6-8:30 PM.
Park, Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. Art in the
Park I. 7/31, 10 AM-4 PM. Also, Public Art Works, featuring
works by Lee Nicholls, Bill McTygue, and Michael L. Noonan.
100, 445 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-0818. Recent
photographs of the NYC Ballet by Paul Kolnik; also, photographs
from the SPAC Jazz Festival by Lee Whitman. Through 7/31.
Trading Co., 68 Beekman St., Saratoga Springs. 584-5772.
Truth Be Told, paintings by Chris Murray. Through 9/2.
Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-2225.
Dancing Rebels, an exhibit highlighting the work of
the New Dance Group. Through May 2006.
Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 191 Union Ave., Saratoga
Springs. 584-0400. Peb: The Art of Humor, featuring
cartoons and caricatures by Pierre Bellocq, celebrating horses
and racing personalities. Through 12/31. Also, 11th Annual
Horsing Around with the Arts student art show. Through 9/30.
Also, Golden Memories: Fifty Years of the Racing Hall of
Fame; also, paintings from the Charles H. Thierot Collection.
New York State Military Museum, 61 Lake Ave., Saratoga
Springs. 581-5100. New York’s Fighting Zouaves. Through
Prestwick Chase at Saratoga, 100 Saratoga Blvd., Saratoga
Springs. 584-7766. Photographs by Andrew Howland. Through
Automobile Museum, 110 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Spa
State Park, Saratoga Springs. 587-1935 ext. 20. East of
Detroit, and New York Racing exhibit. Ongoing.
County Arts Council, Member Exhibition Hall, 320 Broadway,
Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. Works by Paul Arnold. 8/1-31.
Also, works by Penny Koburger. Through 7/31.
Springs Public Library, 49 Henry St., Saratoga Springs.
584-7860. Works by Monique Lemaire. 8/1-31. Also, watercolors
by Robert Risman Jr. Through 7/31.
Visitors Center, 297 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 587-3241.
Works by Robert Ewell. 8/2-29. Also, watercolors and acrylics
by Elizabeth Cannon; also, highlights of the life of Solomon
Northup; also Flower Power: Saratoga In Blossom. Through
College, Schick Art Gallery, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga
Springs. 580-5049. Anything But Realism, group exhibition.
Street Gallery, 110 Spring St., Saratoga Springs. 587-6433.
Pathways, paintings by Joanne K. Murphy. Through 8/31.
Teaching Museum and Gallery, Skidmore College, 815 N.
Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-8080. Weapons of Mass Dissemination:
The Propaganda of War. Through 10/30. Also, Opener
9: Michael Oatman. Through 9/5.
Farmers Market, Dave Meager Community Center, Route 9,
Malta. Tuesdays, 11 AM-2 PM.
Saratoga Farmers Market, High Rock Park, High Rock Avenue,
Saratoga Springs. Saturdays, 9 AM-1 PM; Wednesdays, 3-6 PM.
Mountain Bike Association. Informal rides Tuesdays 6 PM,
Sundays 10 AM. 788-0847, www.saratogamtb.org.
Phillies Baseball, East Side Recreation Field, 266 Lake
Ave., Saratoga Springs. 7/29, 6 PM: Mohawk Valley. 7/30, 6
PM: Watertown. 7/26, 6 PM: Plattsburgh. 7/27, 6 PM: Amsterdam.
Polo Association, Bloomfield and Denton roads, Saratoga
Springs. Matches every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday through
9/4, weather permitting. Gates open 4 PM, start time 5:30
PM. Post-game dinners 7:10 PM. $8 per person or $20 per carload.
Under 16 free. Season passes available. 584-8108, www.saratogapolo.com.
Race Course, Saratoga Springs. 7/30, 8 AM: 5K run to benefit
Special Olympics New York. Begins at corner of George Street
and East Avenue. 388-0790.
Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 7/31, 8-10 AM. Trail
Clean-Up Day. For directions and registration: 584-2000 ext
daily through Sept. 5, except Tuesdays.
267 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs,
$3 grandstand, $5 clubhouse; children under 12 free; seats
are $6 and $7, respectively.
$10 per car at the track side and $5 across the street
at the Oklahoma Training Track. General parking is free.
Nine or 10 races a day; pari-mutuel
wagering on every race.
Race Post Time is at 1 PM (except Travers Day, Aug. 27,
when it’s at 12:30 PM).
Stakes Races The Diana Handicap (July 30); the Whitney
Handicap (Aug. 6); the Sword Dancer Invitational (Aug. 13
); the Alabama Stakes (Aug. 20); the Saratoga Breeders Cup
(Aug. 21 ); the Hopeful Stakes (Aug. 27 ); the Travers Stakes
trainer Nick Zito is presented with a painting
bearing his likeness at the annual Center for the Disabled
fundraiser, which took place at Siro’s on July 26.