Sarah Craig Leads Caffe Lena: Part 1 of 2

For Sarah Craig, learning to lead Caffe Lena, the legacy-rich Saratoga Springs listening room and American roots music shrine, meant learning to listen. She also made peace with a ghost and shared a love of music with her deaf dad.

Craig’s father’s Depression-era training at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf included music appreciation classes. “Music class was a bright spot for my father,” said Craig. “Tuning into vibrations, he could feel drum beats. (Students) placed hands on the piano to feel the pulse of the soundboard.” Craig said, “He loved music; he took it very seriously.” Depression-frugal, her father splurged on Hartford Symphony concerts, a piano and a stereo for his wife.

Portrait of Sarah with the bust of Lena Spencer.
Photo by Joe Deuel

Craig’s first formal concert was by the same symphony; but at four, she’d heard a life-changing medieval music performance; then an unforgettable music-dance concert by Sankai Juku. Before her first non-classical show (the Grateful Dead at SPAC in 1985), Craig hiked through the woods from home in Manchester to the Southern Vermont Arts Center to watch chamber music rehearsals. In a poem, dreamy as the antique gowns she appropriated from a great aunt’s estate, Craig mused on music’s spell:
She is safe in make-believe
While swallows chase her tailwind through the sky.

A late-80s Holly Near concert inspired a “feeling of being part of a feminist-activist community” that Craig said she found “utterly intoxicating.” She knew, then, “There are just so many ways for music to change you.”

Her BA in Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont equipped Craig to raise funds for, then run, the Massachusetts branch of the Peace Action grassroots citizens lobby. 

Wallace Roney
Photo by Michael Hochanadel

Leading a non-profit, Craig focused for a time on organizing change and community-building rather than music, but became increasingly inspired by “the value of creating a space that brings out the best in people.”

Growing up in an instrument-filled home with “wonderful strait-laced parents,” as she described them, Craig played trumpet and French horn in school and piano later. Leaving Boston for the rural comforts she found in the Shushan farmhouse where she has lived for 30 years, Craig looked for ways to facilitate music’s “power to change you.”

She found Caffe Lena, first climbing its steep stairs for a job interview in 1995. She arrived six years after founder Lena Spencer had died following a fall down those same steps worn smooth by musicians seeking stardom and audiences craving community.

Geoff Muldaur
Photo by Michael Hochanadel

Artists and fans built that community alongside Spencer, the delicate-looking iron-willed woman who lived up there in the last years of her heroic life. But Craig found that community tattered in Lena’s absence as she moved from taking tickets to announcing shows to house manager to booking shows. “I thought I could handle it and make a positive difference,” Craig said, “but it wasn’t long before I started to get an inkling of how huge and far-reaching it was.”

The Caffe was a bit chaotic, run by a dedicated, if at times fractious board as a fledgling non-profit, and more than a little sad. 

“It felt like a family that had lost its mother,” said Craig, the mood “lost and pining.” She learned, “Everything was sacred, from the processes and traditions to the paint on the walls. Everyone was the guardian of something that meant the world to them.” She said, “When I realized how deep those feelings ran and how fragile things were, I went into listening mode. I got to know the place and what it meant to people.”

Richard Thompson
Photo by Michael Hochanadel

She worked to build “a steady, reliable presence.” A slim woman of calmly confident, unhurried manner, she focused on making decisions and giving answers as the person who knew “all the parts.”

Craig became full-time executive director in 2001 and began to expand music offerings by adding jazz and rock artists. “I know on instinct when it’s right and when it’s wrong,” said Craig. “It’s not volume or instrumentation, though that’s part of it. There are solo acoustic songwriters with the wrong attitude and motivation and electric bands who fit the spirit perfectly.”

These days, the Caffe’s jazz offerings include a weekly series hosted by pianist Chuck Lamb; and rock band the Figgs (a trio of former Saratoga Springs kids) recently rocked the house. The Caffe has also presented multi-night appearances by folk giants Judy Collins and Richard Thompson, who recently paired on the Tanglewood stage.

Seeing the Caffe as a purpose as much as a place, Craig fostered joint venture concerts at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (Caffe Lena @ SPAC), Pitney Meadows Farm (Farm to Folk), and Universal Preservation Hall, including a November 2022 Darlingside concert originally set for the Caffe but postponed by Covid.

Marcia Ball
Photo by Michael Hochanadel

By 2013, however, the Caffe, the place, itself had to change, presenting a fundraising challenge and drawing the late founder’s ire.

The City of Saratoga Springs demanded the Caffe renovate or be condemned. The cost estimate of $1.2 million seemed far out of reach: a typical Caffe fundraiser collected $1,500. “So I started talking about moving, selling the property, finding a place on the edge of town with easy parking and first-floor location,” Craig said.

But – “Stuff started happening in the kitchen,” Craig recalled. “Things would fall off shelves without being touched.” One day, Craig heard a shout from the kitchen. The baker said a sheet of cookies fell from the counter to the floor. A spatula flew past her “like someone had thrown it.” Craig went to the kitchen and said, “Lena, we won’t leave. I don’t know how we’re going to get this money raised, but we’ll just have to do it.” Then, “Everything settled right down, immediately. No more crashes, no more spills.”

Judy Collins
Photo by Michael Hochanadel

Bonaccio Construction added an elevator, atrium and second staircase in a mixed-use project. An adjacent apartment building shared the elevator; a restaurant opened on the ground floor. In the second-story Caffe, moving the kitchen into the black-box theater, Lena had cherished boosted audience capacity from 80 to 120 while adding a sound booth and improving office and back-stage comforts. Artists playing Lena’s original Caffe waited in line for restrooms with their fans but now have a private green room with shower and washer-dryer.

Expanding the Caffe grew audiences, but when COVID shrank the world, Craig grew the Caffe’s role. Since 2012, a multi-camera broadcast-quality system allowed live-streaming from its stage. Craig said this capability to “be of service during that time, to the artists and the audience…taught us all how powerful music can be during dark times.”

Cyrille Aimee
Photo by Michael Hochanadel

Inspired, Craig said she “kept digging deeper and deeper to try to understand why music had to continue and why it was helping so much.” Three breakthrough Covid initiatives showed the way. A streamed rockabilly concert for nearby nursing home residents showed the unifying power of streaming; an art-appreciation streaming art appreciation program from the Caffe stage broadened Craig’s understanding of community: “It felt holy,” she said. A weekly streamed kids’ program included games, stories and live music.

These inspired ongoing innovations, including the monthly Art of Community program that supports the work of non-profits; the new TrueSongs pairing beneficiaries of non-profit organizations with songwriters to use “the power of music to break down barriers and create understanding,” as Craig explained. A Giving Tuesday after-party rewards grassroots donors with free music, and the streamed kids’ programs grew into an on-site music school that recently received a $15,000 grant from the Dake Family/Stewart’s Shops, Craig saw “a whole different view of Caffe Lena’s role,” as she told the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance in her convention keynote address last fall. “I didn’t see us in the arts over HERE, and the organizations addressing mass incarceration and homelessness and hunger over THERE. I saw us as all on the same team,” said Craig. “I realized that the themes these social service agencies and grassroots activist groups address run all through our ballads, and by putting current, true stories on our stage, we not only give the mic to people who rarely get access to it, but we make folk music come alive in a whole new way.”

Today, Craig is guided by a mission statement she recites each morning: 

Mobilize Saratoga County to embrace the arts as an antidote to division and a path to health. Create a model for a community rooted in social connection and interdependence, as an alternative to the embattled society.

Craig reminded the NERFA conference what music offers to people who “want life, want joy and want unity.” She said, “It’s our job to create experiences that remind people who they truly are, and music is a very powerful tool for doing that.”

Chandler Travis Three-O
Photo by Michael Hochanadel

She concluded, “This tool – music – I don’t entirely understand how it can do what we need it to do, but I’m learning. It’s okay to hope that it’s strong enough to do what we need it to do, and to keep moving forward, exploring the possibilities, because we’re on a journey together. Like my father, I have faith that music is powerful, because I feel it in my chest, even if I don’t entirely understand what it’s saying to me.”

Craig noted, “My big area of growth has been learning to manage the time of employees and do everything at a very professional level.” She said, “Now we’ve got six full-timers and six part-timers (plus volunteers), and we’re all working incredibly hard.”

As a result, and building on its deep history, “Caffe Lena is one of the most respected small venues in the country,” said Craig, a claim confirmed by two Eddies Awards in the 2019 inaugural batch of regional musical honors. “We’re a leader and a role model. What this staff and Board of Directors and volunteer team have accomplished in the last five or six years blows my mind.”

Photo by Michael Hochanadel

Craig says these words of the Caffe’s late founder Lena Spencer still guide her.

“Don’t do it like you’re in it to make money. Just do it with a whole lot of heart, like you’re in it to serve”, Craig quoted her. “Every person who has ever stepped on my little stage – the great, the near great, and the not-so-great – are all responsible, in some small way, for my still being here.” 

“Since the renovation, I feel like she’s here, but she ain’t talking,” Craig said. “I can’t really tell if she feels like we got this now, or if she’s grumbling. It’s a lot of change, but the venue is sturdy, growing and making a difference for more people than ever before. I hope she likes that.”

1 Comment
  1. […] Part 1 told Sarah Craig’s story mainly in her own words; Part 2 here has thoughts from others.  […]

Comments are closed.