By Theresa St. John
“The best way to get to know any bunch of people is to go and listen to their music.” – Woody Guthrie
It doesn’t take much to imagine what Caffé Lena must have been like in the 60’s. Folk music was gaining popularity all over the country. Singers wanted to write meaningful songs, share personal stories, and banter back and forth about political views while performing in establishments such as these. Lena’s, located right here on Phila Street, was one such listening room that marched unwaveringly to the forefront of the movement.
And anyone would be happy to tell you Lena Spencer had a great deal to do with it. Born to Italian immigrants during the Winter of 1923, Pasqualina Rosa Nargi drew her first breath in a Milford, Massachusetts hospital. Introduced to both jazz music and theater at a young age, she found herself in love with both.
Lena performed with an amateur theater group in Boston and worked for a rubber factory during WWII. But most of her free time was spent waitressing in her father’s authentic Italian restaurant. During her late 20’s, she held a position with a local radio station. That job granted her the opportunity to meet America’s future president, John F. Kennedy, during his Massachusetts political campaign.
In 1958, she fell in love and married a young man named Bill Spencer. He’d been to Saratoga before and entertained this crazy idea they should open a coffeehouse, make some quick, easy money and retire somewhere in Europe. On May 20th, 1960, their dream became a reality. The moment the doors opened to the first act, on the 3rd floor of 47 Phila, Caffé Lena was born.
The young married couple bought 2nd hand furniture, arranging tables and chairs in a welcoming way, around the dimly lit stage. Here, they envisioned a line-up of talented artists strumming guitars, belting out soulful prose into the microphone, while adoring fans sat close enough to reach out and touch them. They wanted the caffé to be an intimate space – a venue where people could come to relax, unwind, and listen to some great music.
Mississippi John Hurt, Bernice Johnson Reagan, Arlo Guthrie, Jackie Washington, Don McLean and Emmylou Harris were a few of the up-and-coming personalities to perform on stage at Caffé Lena. And many times it was Lena herself who introduced them to the crowd.
Caffé Lena was a brainstorm child, influenced by the folk scene in both New York City and Boston, where the couple still had ties. Lena and her husband respected the deep-seated traditions of folk music – the passing of songs from person to person, regular folks sticking together and supporting each other, the simple message found in the lyrics – those were core values that the couple quickly adopted.
Bill was comfortable being in charge of booking the acts for the cafe. And it was quite the coup when an unknown artist from New York burst on the scene in Saratoga Springs. His name was Bob Dylan.
In 1962, Bill Spencer fell in love with someone else. His decision to leave Lena was a devastating blow. She would need to somehow manage her new single life and the caffé on her own now. The community rallied around, which made a world of difference for Lena and the Caffé. She realized she was among friends who cared for her well-being.
There was one notable attribute that set Caffé Lena and a few other venues apart-the conviction that they shouldn’t serve alcohol during performances. They wanted their listening rooms to be silent when acts were playing and realized this could be a challenge if people were under the influence during the show.
Caffé Lena remains intimate, even today. A non-profit board of directors stands at the helm. But it’s the professional staff, all of whom are experienced and well-respected, that books and manages this successful venue. And they rely on members, donors, and volunteers for support.
Following a nationwide fundraising effort that brought in $2 million from people who truly valued Lena’s place in music history and belief in the Caffé’s future, her doors closed for six months of extensive renovations. When it reopened, it was with the same enduring spirit of the original.
Every act booked in the caffé since day one strives to make a genuine connection and lasting impression with the audience. In 1973, Lena helped local Skidmore College students orchestrate the student-run show “Lively Lucy’s Coffeehouse.” In 1987, the city of Saratoga honored her by renaming Hamilton Alley “Lena Lane.” The Saratoga Arts Council awarded her with the very first-lifetime achievement award in March 1989.
Preserving the archives of her music venue has been a joint effort between the “Caffé Lena History Project” and “The American Folklife Center,” at the Library of Congress. The hope is to document the historical impact her legacy continues to have on American culture. A ‘Live at Caffé Lena’ 3-CD set came out in 2013. Interested patrons can still purchase it for a nominal fee.
In September 1989, Lena suffered a terrible fall down a flight of stairs at the Caffé. She later died at a hospital in Schenectady, where many of her friends came to play music at her bedside. She was only 66.
It’s not that hard, to think she might still be at the Caffé, wandering around during the show, enjoying good music alongside friends and family. You can almost feel her, standing off to the side, tapping her feet to the melodies played under warm, inviting lights.
And after everyone’s gone? Maybe Lena hums a little tune while wiping down tables, straightening chairs, and tidying up. Be very quiet. Perhaps you’ll hear her whisper ‘Good night,’ before she closes the door, stepping out into the night.
All photos by Theresa St. John