Tonight - and for fifty years beforehand - live at the Caffè Lena

Publish date:

It’s the oldest continuously operating folk club in America. The Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, opened its doors in 1960 under the aegis of namesake Lena Spencer, and since then it’s probably easier to list the names who have not graced its stage, rather than those who have.


However, a box set celebrating half-a-century plus of live performances has a very good stab at the impossible, with no less than forty-seven tracks spreading across the three CDs of Live At Caffè Lena (Tompkins Square); and so many legends file through that even a sampling of their names leaves a whole bunch more out. So, we’ll just run with the full track listing and allow your own eyes to feast on the contents.


01 Intro by Lena Spencer / Guy Carawan Cripple Creek 1970

02 Hedy West Shady Grove 1968

03 Intro by Lena Spencer / Sleepy John Estes Holy Spirit 1974

04 Frank Wakefield and Friends Will The Circle Be Unbroken 1971

05 Jean Ritchie West Virginia Mine Disaster 1969

06 Billy Faier Hunt The Wren 1967

07 Greenbriar Boys Hit Parade of Love 1968

08 Mike Seeger O Death 1971

09 Jacqui and Bridie Hello Friend 1974

10 Tom Paxton Morning Again 1968

11 David Amram Little Mama 1974

12 Patrick Sky Reality Is Bad Enough 1971

13 Rosalie Sorrels Travelin' Lady 1974

14 Smoke Dawson Devil's Dream 1968

15 Utah Phillips The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia 1974

16 Michael Cooney Thyme It Is A Precious Thing 1974

17 Kate McGarrigle and Roma Baran Caffè Lena 1972


01 Intro by Lena Spencer / Dave Van Ronk Gaslight Rag 1974

02 Jerry Jeff Walker Mr. Bojangles 1968

03 Barbara Dane Mama Yancey's Advice / Love With a Feeling 1968

04 Roy Book Binder Ain't Nobody Home But Me 1974

05 Intro by Lena Spencer / David Bromberg The Holdup 1972

06 Ramblin' Jack Elliott Pretty Boy Floyd 1992

07 Arlo Guthrie City of New Orleans 2010

08 Aztec Two Step The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty 1989

09 Happy And Artie Traum Trials Of Jonathan 1974

10 Rick Danko It Makes No Difference 1988

11 Paul Geremia Something's Gotta Be Arranged 1989

12 Robin and Linda Williams S-A-V-E-D 1987

13 John Herald Ramblin' Jack Elliott 1991

14 Pete Seeger Somos El Barco (We Are the Boat) 1985


01 Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion Folksong 2013

02 Anais Mitchell Wedding Song 2013

03 Bill Morrissey The Last Day Of The Furlough 1990

04 Patty Larkin Island Of Time 1992

05 Greg Brown Flat Stuff 1989

06 Mary Gauthier I Drink 2013

07 Sean Rowe Old Black Dodge 2013

08 Tom Chapin Cats In The Cradle 1987

09 Intro by Lena Spencer / Christine Lavin It's A Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind 1987

10 Bill Staines Sweet Wyoming Home 1990

11 Bucky and John Pizzarelli I Like Jersey Best 1989

12 Rory Block That's No Way To Get Along 1989

13 Chris Smither Killing The Blues 1989

14 Tift Merritt Traveling Alone 2013

15 John Gorka Down In The Milltown 1990

16 Lena Spencer Dear Little Cafe 1972

There’s doubtless a multitude of reasons why the earliest recordings date some eight years after the venue’s debut; and a multitude more to explain why the tracks are programed in what feels like a very random order. From an historical point of view, many of them are priceless, but listening to them in strict chronological order (it’s what your iPod is for) opens up an even more valuable trove, as you trace the music itself through the sometimes subtle, but always ultimately substantial shifts that have hallmarked American folk music.

Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say that the superb Anaïs Mitchell, performing “The Wedding Song” earlier this year, would have been burned as a witch by the hardcore folkies of the early 1960s; just as it’s unfair to say a modern audience would probably be less tolerant of “Cat’s In The Cradle” than they were way back when. A genre that wrote its own stereotype in the late 1950s and has been poling holes in (and fun at) it ever since has rarely thrown all of its toys out of the pram.

But still there are some sublime moments of invention here, often where they are least expected, and if the relative absence of too many historical “headline” names leaves the prospective purchaser in two minds, that’s probably because you haven’t heard (of) everyone that is included. So we catch a stupendous early sighting of Kate McGarrigle; a latter-day reinvention of “The City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie; Dave van Ronk; Rick Danko; Pete Seeger; Jean Ritchie; Tom Paxton... Aztec Two Step! Barbara Dane’s blues and Bill Morrissey’s confessional; John Herald’s tribute to Rambling Jack; and Rambling Jack’s own “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

And, at the same time, Jacqui and Bridie, Happy and Artie, Buckie and John, plus a booklet full of memories that will leave the reader spellbound whether they’ve set foot inside Caffè Lena or not. Ms Spencer herself passed away in the 80s, but the venue that bears her name is still going, and five cuts recorded earlier this year testify to a musical policy that is all-but a national treasure.

So... if you can’t be there, be here!

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at 

Caffe Lena