On This Date in 1961: Bob Dylan bombs at Caffe Lena

If you’re a music fan in Greater Nippertown, you’re undoubtedly aware that Bob Dylan performed at Caffe Lena very early in his musical career when he was just another unknown folksinger scrappin’ for gigs. It’s the stuff of legend around here…

Bob Dylan performs at New York City’s the Bitter End, 1961.
Photo by Sigmund Goode

The venerable Saratoga Springs coffeehouse Caffe Lena first played host to Bob Dylan on July 7th and 8th in 1961.

In Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen’s book “Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival” – published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name that was presented at the Museum on the City of New York – Terri Thal, the wife and manager of Dave Van Ronk, recalls the adventure of booking Bob Dylan into Caffe Lena:

“Dave [Van Ronk] and I first met Bob Dylan in 1961, and I thought he was a genius.

We all became good friends, and Bob spent a lot of time at our apartment. He thought I was smart, but his real admiration was for Dave. Dave taught him a lot about guitar, lectured him on left-wing politics, and encouraged him to read Bertolt Brecht, the Goliard poets, and Francois Villon, all satirical critics of their societies. Bob’s fascination with these poets showed up later, in his songwriting.

His girlfriend Suze Rotolo introduced him to theater and visual art. The four of us roamed around the Village, eating breakfast in mid-day and playing penny poker in my kitchen in the evening.

One day Bob asked me, “Would you get me gigs?” I said, “I’ll try.” I didn’t even think of asking him to sign a management contract; we were friends.

I took an audition tape to clubs in Springfield, Cambridge and Boston, Massachussetts. No one booked him. I got him an appearance at the Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. Whenever owners Lena and Bill Spencer found themselves without a performer, Lena would call me, and I would find someone to go there. When I asked her to book Bob, she objected because he was too new and unknown. “Every time you need an act at the last minute, I find one for you,” I said. “Now I want a favor.”

Bob played there and bombed. The audience talked throughout his performance. At the end of the weekend, Lena called and told me never again to ask her to book Bob Dylan into her club.”

Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo, and Lena Spencer (c. 1962)
Photo by Joe Alper

Editor’s note: the core of this article was written by Greg Haymes in May of 2016 and can be found here. It was updated to include the original dates of Dylan’s performance by Jim Gilbert.

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