Michael Jerling’s Journey: Decades of Folk at Caffe Lena

In the pop music world, being an adult is an anathema. Michael Jerling is an adult who writes adult folk songs. He’s been doing it for more than four decades and has been playing Caffe Lena almost from the beginning. He has a song he hasn’t recorded yet called “I Live A Dead Language.”

“It’s the way I feel sometimes,” he says.

“My kind of writing is as much being a writer of words as it is a writer of music, and that’s what attracted me to be a singer/songwriter. I’m not a master musician. I’m an instrumentalist. I do a good job of supporting what I do, but I’m not an amazing guitar player, so I can’t just go out and say, ‘Look at me. Wow, wow, wow!’ But that’s never what my goal was anyway. So, it’s telling stories in a lot of ways, I guess.

Photo by Aaron Winters

“I do have a (writing) process, but it’s not an iron rule or anything. It’s just the way I come up with things. I write in bunches. I don’t write all the time, but when I start writing, it’s all I think about. I do that a lot. Then, I let it sit for a while.

“When Covid hit, I wasn’t performing, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be performing again. That’s when I had all the time, but I had no inspiration to write. I had ideas come into my head, but I didn’t have the energy to put ’em forward because, when I was 18 years old, I would write it anyway because I was sure the whole world was going to want to hear it.

“Now, I know that’s not necessarily so, and if I have a place to present it, that’s what motivates me to put it in front of people. Being creative, the more I do, the more I do, and I find that having (time) and nothing to do didn’t help me, but now I’ve been getting back into it again. So, that’s great.”

He’s had “odd jobs” to supplement his income. “Every job I’ve ever had, the last day of the job is the best day of the job. You know, I never came up with something accidentally besides music that I thought, ‘Wow! This is something I really want to do. This is something I want to do, and I want to be.’ I wasn’t seeking out careers really. I was looking for some money to pay the rent. But still, if I’d had that experience in some other things, I may have gone in other directions, but I’m a one-trick pony, so I have other interests but not other career interests.”

Michael’s career is permanently linked to the storied Caffe Lena, and he’s seen many changes over the years. “(CEO) Sarah Craig is one of my heroes whose been running the Caffe and got it through Covid and everything. The building was going to be condemned. It was going to be torn down. It was at that point when the Caffe looked at doing renovations and had people come in. They said, ‘This building needs so much work. It’s not safe to be in.’ So, that was where it was at. We had a choice. They talked about moving it to another location. Most of the places I started playing in those days are gone and continue to melt away. The ones that are still around are not in their original location for the most part.”

The Caffe Lena has enjoyed quite an evolution in its 63 years. Folk legend Dave Van Ronk, at the beginning of his last set one night in June 1970, told his audience, “I really love this place. For an old anarchist like me, this is home. Lena [Spencer], you’re a love, but if you were a dog, you couldn’t organize a pack of fleas. This is the best damn club! Have you ever noticed that? Have you ever noticed? Have you gone to a coffee house almost anywhere and ordered a cup of coffee and saved it for open cuts? This is probably the only coffee house in the United States that you can get a cup of coffee that won’t poison you.”

Maybe Dave’s comments shed some light on why Caffe Lena is spelled with two f’s instead of one. Michael Jerling is a link to the Caffe’s iconic past. For his Saturday, September 16th show at Caffe Lena, he will be performing with his wife Teresina Huxtable on reed organ, accordion, and vocals; mandolin player Orion Kribs, son of John, who produced Michael’s first album On Top of Fool’s Hill; and multi-instrumentalist Izzy Reinish.

“I never really tried to write to be a success,” says Michael. “I write what I want to write, but hope people will like it. I write for myself, but I’m still writing for an audience in my mind. I think my writing has gotten a little more difficult. It takes a little more energy sometimes to listen to. Not all of it. Some of it is just for fun. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s just me thinking I’m doing that.”

I’ve been writing about Michael for more than four decades. He was a great songwriter then and a better one now.

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