Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others

Caffe Lena
Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others

Caffe LenaWhen one thinks of the Folk Boom of the late ’50s and early ’60s, the place that first comes to mind is New York City. Sure, Los Angeles had the Ash Grove, Chicago the Gate of Horn, but New York had Gerde’s Folk City, the Gaslight, Night Owl Café, the Bitter End, and of course Washington Square Park, where banjos and acoustic guitars could be heard every weekend afternoon, played by pros and hobbyists alike. But in 1960, three hours north of Greenwich Village, in Saratoga Springs, New York, the late Lena Spencer opened the 75seat coffeehouse that still bears her name, where a dizzying array of traditional folk interpreters and singer/songwriters perform to this day.

The problem with too many anthologies (of any genre) is that their repertoires are dictated by contractual limitations. As impressive as 1984’s Bleecker and MacDougal four-LP box is (if you can find it), it’s the story of one label associated with the folk movement – Elektra Records (with the exception of two of its 30 artists, leased from rival Vanguard). If Tompkins Square Records had to jump through contractual hoops to compile the 47 tracks contained in this three-CD box, it doesn’t show. Neither does the fact that the music, spanning 1967 to 2013, had to be digitized from myriad sources.

The stylistic gamut runs from bluegrass revivalists the Greenbriar Boys (with guitarist John Herald) to bluesmen Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon showing their sanctified side, from Smoke Dawson’s Celtic/Appalachian fiddle to Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1968 rendition of “Mr. Bojangles,” accompanied beautifully by David Bromberg’s guitar.

Other guitar highlights include Dave Van Ronk’s “Gaslight Rag,” the dual guitars and sibling harmonies of Happy and Artie Traum, Barbara Dane’s Leadbelly-tinged 12-string, the muscular bottleneck of Paul Geremia, Greg Brown’s updated Mississippi John Hurt on “Flat Stuff,” and Rory Block’s passionate take on Rev. Robert Wilkins’ “That’s No Way To Get Along” (later renamed “Prodigal Son”).

And, although overlooked by the 30-page booklet’s essays, jazz greats John and Bucky Pizzarelli show that more than folk music made its way to the club on Phila Street, with “I Like Jersey Best.” Folk music can be a tad academic or precious, but this stuff is rich and exciting. Reportedly, some 700 shows from Caffe Lena have been unearthed. This is a good start, but hopefully not the last we’ll hear from Lena’s stage.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s January ’14 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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