Last week I hosted an amazing event, a book launch for Caffe Lena – Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse; this is the incredible book that a friend of mine, Jocelyn Arem has been tirelessly working on for more than a decade. In preparing for the event all these memories and stories came back to me and I realized a bunch of things. Below is an expanded version of what I shared as the host on that Thursday night.
I am a child of folk music. I have grown up at folk festivals because my mom is a visual artist and craftsperson who always had a booth to sell her creations. The sound of fiddles jamming late into the night, my childhood lullaby. But at fourteen I wanted to rebel and find my own scene. I was writing deep (angsty) poetry and found my way to those double doors on a Thursday, Caffe Lena’s open mic night. It was 1989. Lena’s open mic quickly became my realm, outlet and training ground. I remember the night I first performed my poem that made me decide that yes, I was a poet. I was seated back on the landing, waiting for my turn, reading it over and over under my breath, and then I got up and shared it. Funny, all these years later and I still remember the last bit of it:
raining down on me
a sea of debris
swallowing me in one big gulp
my will to live
my fear to die
Dark yes, brilliant, not so much, but at the open mic night, I could share it and not be concerned about teachers sending me to the guidance counselor. At open mic night I could be myself and hear so many others being themselves too. Skidmore students, older folkies, high school students and so many more.
That October Lena passed. I remember it being sudden and sad and the community rallying around the place to keep it going, but I was fourteen and death wasn’t a really real thing to me yet.
The next year one of my friends told me that he was volunteering there, waiting tables and making tips and so at fifteen I started working at Lena’s. Quickly I became one of the main folks that worked there, waiting tables almost every weekend. But this place I had “discovered” on my own, was actually linked to my childhood and my mother’s community. I realized this as customer after customer would say “Are you Carol Crandell’s daughter? Last time I saw you, you were a little girl.” “You know, your mom used to bring you here when you were just a baby.” There was a path I followed even though I thought this was my own thing.
This path started with Fox Hollow, that legendary folk festival for all in the community who lived in the northeast of the U.S. My mom had a booth and sold her infamous hippie dolls. ’80 was the last year of this particular festival, and also one of my first memories. Me and a couple of other kids were playing near my mom’s booth. It was a woody area, and I think it was a bit wet, having rained earlier. And we were treasure hunting, digging in the dirt with our hands, that must have been a joy to clean off, and we actually found something, a foreign coin, we brought it back to my mom, super proud of our discovery. I was almost six and one of the beautiful things about folk festivals at that time was that we kids could be a bit independent, we weren’t kept under the lock and key of our parents every instant, because the larger community was watching us too. As Fox Hollow ended, Old Songs began. I was a festival kid, running around with the other kids, playing in the sand pile at the children’s area, where they would bury little treasures for us kids to dig up on Saturday morning; and when we were older, walking around in packs on Saturday night pretending like we were bored and folk music wasn’t for us. One of the other friends in that pack was Nathaniel Ward, younger son of George and Vaughan Ward, who were mainstays in the folk scene. And it was Nathaniel that first got me to volunteer at Lena’s. Yes, there was definitely a path.
And so at fifteen, although I complained to my friends how bored I was around this scene, every weekend I would wait tables at Lena’s and enjoy some of this country’s best folk, blues and more.
The Story, Guy Davis, Odetta, Ani DiFranco, Christine Lavin, John Gorga, Aztec Two-Step, Livingston Taylor, Jamie Notterthomas, Dave Van Ronk, Rossanne Raneri, The Figgs, G-Love (before he was G-Love) Bill Morrissey, Bill Staines, Greg Brown, Patty Larkin, and hundreds of other incredible performers.
I was sixteen when Ani DiFranco first played Lena’s. She was twenty, touring the country in her car selling her self published debut album, on cassette tape. Hardly anyone had ever heard of her, Barb Harris, the then manager of Lena’s; much like Lena had done for countless other artists over the years, took a chance on booking her because Barb sensed there was something special about Ani. I made nine dollars in tips that night, there were only twenty people in the audience and I used that money to buy Ani’s tape. A year later she came back and played to a packed house. I was seventeen and she was twenty-one. I read her a poem of mine about a messed up sexual experience I had with an asshole that she knew, that went to New School where she was taking classes. She encouraged me to keep writing and agreed that he was indeed an asshole.
I also performed my first interdisciplinary performance piece in the black box theater there. I was eighteen. The piece was called Voyage. It was a combination of my poetry, movement and music. This was way before I learned to use the term interdisciplinary to describe my artistic work. I enlisted the help of three musicians that I had met through open mic night and a dancer friend of mine from Albany. To this day I’m not quite sure how I got these performers to be in my piece. All of them besides my dancer friend Melanie were older than me and in varying stages of being professional musicians. Lena’s seemed to foster such a warm intergenerational vibe. Community.
And speaking of open mic night, I remember the first time Rosanne Raneri stepped on stage. Barb and I were in the office and suddenly we heard this incredible voice, we rushed out and wow. We were blown away.
I am searching for an integrated and holistic life, and hosting the book launch reminded me what a unique upbringing I had, being always around music and joy and a community of people who cared. And how so much of who I am at my core is because of these experiences, that I really need to integrate the folk world into my every day life, or at least life on the regular.
How many lives do we live in a lifetime? I’ve done so many things, and I have so many visions and dreams of things I still want to accomplish.
A place, I have wanted to have a place, an arts space probably since the time I started working at Lena’s. My studying of the Black Arts Movement in college and the concept of institution building just strengthened that longing. And yet I also want to continue to grow my career as an interdisciplinary performing artist and allow it to bring me all over the world and move people. Are these two dreams at odds with each other?
Lena originally opened the Caffe with her then husband because they wanted a way to make some money to travel to Europe and live and create there for five years. They opened Caffe Lena in 1960.
Lena never did move to Europe, instead she created a beautiful place for generations of performers and audiences alike to love and grow and experience the best things in life. She has left such a beautiful and important legacy. I am so honored to have been a small part of it and inspired to keep reaching for my dreams while allowing my life to organically grow in the unforeseeable ways of the future.
peace and movement,