Sarah Craig Leads Caffe Lena: Part 2 of 2

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

Some of the many artists, volunteers and staffers at Caffe Lena span both Lena Spencer and Sarah Craig eras, including Joe Deuel, Michael Jerling, Wanda Fischer, Arlo Guthrie, and Janis Ian.

Sarah Craig
Photo by Joe Deuel

In the job-jumping way of volunteer organizations, Deuel began as a kitchen volunteer but became sound engineer while also photographing many performers. Jerling auditioned for Spencer, became a headliner, and served on the post-Lena board of directors. Fischer also served on the board and tells listeners of its music offerings through her Mostly Folk show on WAMC.

Deuel began as a fan in 1973, watching U. Utah Phillips and Martin Growswendt onstage. 

“In the late ‘80s, I got involved with a woman who was a perennial volunteer, and I started volunteering in the kitchen,” said Deuel. 

Utah Phillips
Photo by Joe Deuel

“I started out washing dishes and waiting tables,” he recalled. When Lena asked him to help a performer adjust the Caffe’s limited sound system, a career began. “Soon, I was dealing with the sound every night,” said Deuel, who had no previous interest in audio engineering.“I’ve been doing it at Lena’s on and off for over 35 years. It’s been a job for the last 20 years.”

He and Lena grew close. “The last year of Lena’s life, I had her call me every morning, so I’d know she was OK,” said Deuel, noting Lena’s advancing health problems, including vision loss. “She lived on the couch at the Caffe in those days and didn’t have a lot of people around,” he said. “We had a short pleasant conversation every morning. She was effectively my alarm clock.”

Lena Spencer at the Caffe
Photo by Joe Deuel

One morning, Lena was not OK. Her passing “was everything you might imagine,” Deuel lamented, “a very sad, trying, uncertain time.” He said, “Lena was the Caffe, and anything after was going to be a re-invention.”

Deuel saw that when Sarah Craig took it over, she shared similarities with Lena. Deuel said, “Both of them had landed in a spot of great unfamiliarity.” He recalled that Lena and her then-husband launched the Caffe to leverage the growing popularity of folk music as a stepping stone to Europe. “They knew nothing about the music. Lena grew into it…and she made the Caffe her life for almost 30 years.”

He said, “Even though the place has been radically transformed, first becoming a nonprofit, then with the gutting of the facility, and rebirth as a modern, less funky, facility, I think the audience experience remains pretty much intact.” He said, “It’s amazing music in a small intimate space that you might not expect to find in your backyard.”

Sarah Craig and Eric Lowen
Photo by Joe Deuel

Like the Caffe, that backyard has also changed. “Saratoga Springs was an extremely conservative town,” said Deuel. “The existence of Lena’s in those days was so bizarrely improbable. It’s improbable that it’s lasted 62 years. There’s an enduring sense of why this does work.” He said Lena’s dogged will kept things going, but “Today, with the influx of fundraising and a much larger staff, there are some wonderful things.”

Deuel’s respectful view of artists stretches back decades. “I really loved seeing the spell that Jesse Winchester wove. That would be near the top,” he said, name-checking Dave Van Ronk, Utah Phillips, and Paul Geremia. “It was great working with and seeing John Hartford, Townes Van Zandt, Vassar Clements, Rick Danko…” All folk giants, all now deceased.

More recently, Deuel noted Covid’s toll. “We’re still trying to recover,” he said. “We kept streaming performers from the room with no audience and actually made some money for them in the process.” 

Deuel said, “Sarah’s been pretty creative about finding solutions for problems. She got us through the pandemic as well as anyone could. She’s a talented person.”

Michael Jerling
Photo by Joe Deuel

When Michael Jerling auditioned for Lena in 1977, she liked his songs; one even earned a few tears. After some opening slots and group shows, she promoted him to headliner in early 1981 as his “On Top of Fool’s Hill” album hit. (Jerling also appears on “Caffe Lena Historic Stages Volume 1,” “Fast Folk,” and “Saratoga Pie” compilations.)

“Lena was strong-willed and soft-hearted,” said Jerling. “She was Caffe Lena, and Caffe Lena was her life.” He said, “When Lena died, it was no sure thing that the Caffe would survive.” He said, “There were no assets and lots of unpaid bills,” recalling how some sought to buy its name for new businesses. More altruistically and in Lena’s spirit, Andy Spence of Old Songs volunteered to lead volunteers in keeping it open. 

When longtime Caffe friend Field Horne contacted Lena’s family and won their support to continue, “There was a lot of emotion and conflict among well-meaning folks,” said Jerling. “But eventually, the idea of a non-profit took shape, and the ad hoc board that I was a member of became formalized.” He recalled, “Barbara Harris, who had helped Lena before she died, became the manager.” However, “The first couple years without Lena were very touch and go financially, and Barbara Harris was let go.”

Then, when Sarah Craig took over, Jerling said, “I was impressed with her calmness, friendliness, and quiet competence.”

Sarah Craig and Danny Kalb
Photo by Joe Deuel

Jerling said, “As there would not be a Caffe Lena without Lena Spencer, I believe there would not still be a Caffe Lena without Sarah Craig.”

He said, “Sarah’s patient leadership style is perfect for the cat-herding that is working with the quirky, sometimes temperamental performers, and, most impressively, she knew she could not succeed alone.” Jerling explained, “Sarah has always sought out variously talented people from all walks of life to be on the board and staff and volunteers.” Jerlng recalled, “To shepherd this enterprise through the complete physical rebuilding and rebirth – when the building was days away from being condemned – and perhaps even more amazingly to navigate through the Covid pandemic and come out the other side intact and thriving was leadership at its best.”

Jerling also hailed Craig’s long-term vision. “Perhaps her most important move was to see early on that the Boomer audience was aging out; without losing respect for those stalwarts, she has built up a youth movement and brought many fresh faces and genres to the venerable stage.”

“Selfishly, I would like to see her stay at this job forever,” said Jerling.

Wanda Fischer
Photo by Joe Deuel

“Sarah has been an outstanding leader,” said WAMC “Hudson River Sampler” DJ Wanda Fischer, praising her taste and vision. “She has not only kept up with the national and local music scene, but she has also made a concerted effort to bring in performers who are just starting out, as unknowns, and help them get their start.” Fischer singled out Darlingside, who started playing the Caffe as unknowns and now sell out bigger venues. “Sarah has the ability to see potential in bands, solo, and duo performers that others may not have.”

Fischer also admired Craig’s joint ventures, especially during Covid. “She had the idea of partnering with other folk venues in the country to co-present virtual concerts during the lockdown,” said Fischer. “Musicians came to the Caffe to perform, and the concert was broadcast over Zoom. Listeners were able to make donations. Part went to the artist, part went to the Caffe, part to the other venue. It was a great success.”

Sarah during Caffe Lena renovations
Photo by Joe Deuel

Fischer served on the Caffe board for six years, including during the renovation. She noted, “I was always impressed with Sarah’s tact and ability to express herself, no matter what situation she was in.”

Fischer said, “Caffe Lena is a leading light in folk music, both locally and nationally.… both from performers and other venues.”

“Sarah has led the organization with insight, knowledge, and grace since she took over the reins more than 25 years ago,” Fischer said. “Both veteran and new performers from all over the world look forward to taking to the Caffe Lena stage, as they have for many years. Part of that is knowing that the Caffe is managed by creative and competent management.”

The Caffe Before and After
Photo by Joe Deuel

Among those performers, once a new kid and now a veteran, is Arlo Guthrie. Returning recently from Florida to his home in the Berkshires, Guthrie FaceBook’ed about the road trip. “Last year, we got back in time to go to Saratoga Springs, NY, to hear my old buddy Janis Ian do a show and a masterclass at Caffe Lena, where I first played a long time ago.” Guthrie recalled, “It was really fun for me to return to familiar territory. Lena Spencer owned and operated the little folk club back in the day, and I spent a lot of time staying with her and performing at her coffee house.” 

For Guthrie, the Caffe has been a learning experience. “I used to go not only to perform but to learn from others who were playing there, guys like Logan English.” Tracing his career arc via a key stop on the way, Guthrie said, “Even though I began playing larger venues up there, like SPAC (Saratoga Performing Arts Center), I always stopped into Lena’s to say hello. My daughter, Sarah Lee, performed there recently too.”

Arlo GuthriePhoto by Joe Deuel

Guthrie said, “The place is still there and going strong. Although they’ve done some renovations, it’s essentially the same as it always was.”

For her part, Guthrie’s pal Janis Ian also has warm feelings for Caffe Lena. “I loved playing at Caffe Lena,” Ian said. “My memory of Sarah is that she made life super-easy for us, all the more impressive because we had a film crew shooting both a full show and my master class.” She said, “Their staff was superb, and of course: ‘It comes from the top,’ as they say.” 

Ian said, “Caffe Lena is an iconic venue, and kudos to Sarah for maintaining the club’s integrity while embracing modern techniques and technology!”

Caffe Lena: My First Steps

I first climbed Caffe Lena’s steep stairs on a bright summer evening in 1963.

I could hear the music as we opened the door. Defying gravity, it only grew deeper as we climbed. At the top sat rows of rapt fans on mismatched chairs, coffee cups crowding the tables. 

There was no sound in that dark L-shaped room but the weathered, world-weary voice and sparse guitar of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt.

Photo by Joe Deuel

I’d never heard a sound so thick with feeling yet so empty of ornamentation. 

There was no extra syllable, breath or guitar note; no “show-biz.” This was music at its most irresistibly essential.

I didn’t hear anything that compared with that for sheer intensity – including the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967 – until I saw “Lightnin’” Sam Hopkins in the vast warehouse of the Vulcan Gas Company in Austin the next year.

Maybe the power of that first Caffe Lena visit was magnified by its brevity. Maybe not.

See, the place was sold out. 

We couldn’t stay, as Lena kindly, firmly explained.

We had to go back down those rickety stairs onto sunny Phila Street.

I resolved, then, never to arrive late for a show, and always to ensure that I can get in, and stay.

OK, Wait – Another One:

I knew Dave Van Ronk from hearing Jackie Alper play his records on her WRPI show “Hudson River Sampler.” So I took my then-girlfriend Jane to see him when he came to play Caffe Lena.

Dave Van Ronk
Photo by Joe Deuel

After Van Ronk finished his show – gruff, authentic, tuneful and a little raw at times – Jane and I ventured into what then passed for a dressing room. Van Ronk sat there with Lena herself and with a sidekick – there’s no better word for this guy – a hairy fire-plug with more beard than Van Ronk. Plunk a parrot on his shoulder and he’d look the perfect pirate.

The three were talking and laughing and passing a joint, but the place went quiet when Jane and I – well, when Jane, actually – walked in. 

Jane is 5’4”, beautiful and lean; a dancer; and you could see that in every move.

Van Ronk and the sidekick guy gawked unashamedly. We all five spoke a bit, then Van Ronk said to me, “I want this wench and will offer you ten golden guineas, cash on the barrel head.”

No deal, man.

Now, I Wasn’t There for This…

As a tour stop for those who toted instruments and vivid personalities around America, Caffe Lena became the locus of many a tall tale, some too good to forget, whether they’re true or not. Folk fans spin them to this day.

One night, as the story goes, a performer resolved a troublesome love triangle with the weapon of music. Well, this likely happened more than once.

Smoke Dawson came off the Caffe stage to stand right behind his romantic rival. He raised a mighty ruckus – on his screaming bagpipes.

When Dawson finished the song/attack, he proclaimed, “Them’s war pipes!”

So, who’s Smoke Dawson? Here’s a note on his only-ever album, “Fiddle,” from the Tompkins Square record label.

George “Smoke” Dawson played banjo in MacGrundy’s Old-Timey Wool Thumpers with Peter Stampfel (later of Holy Modal Rounders) in 1960, lived for years at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, and roamed around the US as an itinerant bagpipe and fiddle player for decades. His life is laced with small triumphs, and tragedy. Tompkins Square reissues his only album, a remarkable 1971 private press LP on CD/LP/DL.

Excerpted notes by reissue producer / Tompkins Square label owner Josh Rosenthal:

I was doing some research for a box set of music recorded at Caffe Lena, the hallowed folk music venue located in Saratoga Springs, NY, when I came upon a photograph of a musician I didn’t recognize. He looked like a sixth member of The Band – a handsome fiddler with wax mustache, goatee, black Western hat. There was a traditional air to him, a seriousness, but there was also something wild there. I needed to know who he was, and everything about him. The producers told me his name was Smoke Dawson, and they had tape on him. We listened, and his live version of “Devil’s Dream” made it onto the box set. Then I started digging. I found a 1996 blog post from someone named Oliver Seeler, who claimed to have recorded a solo album by Dawson in 1971. I called the number on the site, not expecting much from an 18-year-old blog post. But he picked up. He gave me background on the record. And, he gave me Smoke Dawson’s phone number . . .

“Live At Caffe Lena: Music from America’s Legendary Coffeehouse (1967-2013)” (Tompkins Square Records) collects 47 songs recorded live onstage in the Caffe. Featuring A-list folk giants across the decades and lesser-known artists on the same equal footing that Lena and Craig have long provided performers, the three-CD set concludes with Lena herself singing “Dear Little Caffe.” Front Hall Records/Old Songs stalwarts Bill and Andy Spence and current Caffe Lena sound engineer Joe Deuel are among those who recorded these songs, sung and played by such notables as Van Ronk, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Rick Danko, Roy Book Binder, generations of Guthries – and Smoke Dawson.

“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” – Mark Twain

Some 60 years after I saw/missed Mississippi John Hurt play Caffe Lena, the Caffe presents “HURT – A Mississippi Inspiration: Fundraiser for John Hurt Film” on April 29. The fundraiser will benefit the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation and support the production of a film on his life and legacy.

The evening will feature performances by the Piedmont Bluz Duo (Valerie and Benedict Turner), Annie & Jonny Rosen of Annie and the Hedonists, Erin Harpe and Jim Countryman, and Mark Tolstrup and Jill Burnham of Mark & Jill. 8 p.m., doors 7:30. $38.63, students and children $22.50. 518-583-0022

  1. Gary Moeller says

    What a great piece. I worked at Lena’s in the early ’80’s and engineered her radio show, Lena’s Open Door at WSPN, the Skidmore College radio station for a couple years. Met many talented musicians there. I also had a theater background and became the Technical Director in the theater. A wonderful thing happened to me there. Michael Burns, who now owns and operates MOPCO, an improv company in Schenectady, did a couple productions in the theater in the early ’80’s, putting on A Christmas Carol and, a few months later, a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I was on a ladder in the theater taking down lights from a Belly-Dancing show that Lena had booked in the theater when Michael Burns (who now owns MOPCO, an improv company based in Schenectady) walked in with a young woman and introduced her to me. I looked down from the ladder and I saw this face…. We’ve now been married over 30 years.

  2. Wanda Fischer says

    One quick correction: Jackie Alper did “Mostly Folk” on WRPI. My show is called “Hudson River Sampler.” However, beyond that, this piece is superb. Thank you so much for this wonderful story.

  3. Jim Gilbert says

    All fixed. Thank you!

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