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Conservatory of folk music

What does Jocelyn Arem ’04 have in common with Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Don McLean, and Emmylou Harris? They’ve all sung on the Caffè Lena stage.

A landmark in Saratoga Springs and a nonprofit showcase for both emerging and established talent, the cafe is Ameri- ca’s oldest folk-music coffeehouse still operating, established in 1960 by actress Lena Spencer. Arem has described the late Spencer, whom she reveres, as a “defiant dreamer.”

The daughter of artistic parents who encouraged her to embrace her expres- sive gifts as a singer-songwriter, Arem found her way up the cafe’s notoriously steep stairwell as a Skidmore student. “The first time I walked up the stairs with my guitar over my shoulder,” she recalls, “I knew I was in a place with a history worth knowing and being part of.” Lena’s offered a forum for her fasci- nations with music, American studies, and history, which she blended into a self-determined major in ethnomusicol - ogy. She found herself comfortable among musicians and raconteurs who could share sentiments, memo ries, and insights about the cafe. Arem’s curiosity intensified during study abroad in Lon- don, where she researched folk music as storytelling, ex- ploring its roots and role in social movements. “Caffè Lena was a window into all of these worlds,” she says. “And hundreds of people have said that to me since.” Arem’s conversations about Caffè Lena have been long and deep over the past 11 years. She went to work there upon graduation and has now curated an extraor- dinary assemblage of 6,000 photos, 700 hours of record- ings, 45 boxes of memora - bilia, and 100 interviews to illuminate and preserve the cafe’s legacy. The culmina- tion of the exhaustive Caffè


Lena History Project, funded by grants from the prestigious Grammy Founda- tion and others, is her recently pub- lished Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Leg- endary Folk Music Coffeehouse. The book introduces never-before-seen images by photographer Joe Alper, as well as firsthand inter- views with renowned folk artists and their family members, which she crisscrossed the country to conduct. “Each was a bread crumb leading me to the next,” Arem says, adding, “The more I uncovered, the more I realized I was just scratching the surface. I worried that if I didn’t document it, the history could be lost.” She admits, “I have been totally absorbed,” although somehow she also managed to earn a graduate de- gree in folklore and culture studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The history project had the blessing of the cafe’s leadership; in fact, Arem’s zeal has been rewarded with a seat on the board. In addition, she is grateful for support from Skidmore Presi-


dent Phil Glotzbach and his wife, local arts advocate Marie Glotzbach; numer- ous faculty members; the Tang Teaching Museum, now showing an exhibit from her archives through Oct. 20; as well as community resources, such as Saratoga’s city historian.

“The project is a col- laboration,” she says, and it reaches beyond Saratoga Springs. In

2008 the Library of Congress acquired the archival collection for inclusion in the American Folklife Center.


The café tells “a multilayered, compli- cated story,” Arem says. “It’s a time cap- sule from the ’60s, when a lot of people were experiencing the freedom of dis- covery, a theme that has timeless appeal to artists.” She points to singer, compos- er, scholar, and social activist Bernice Johnson Reagon as one fulfillment of the mythology about inauspicious be- ginnings leading to remarkable out- comes thanks to Caffè Lena. Reagon was a waitress at Hattie’s Chicken Shack, next door to Lena’s and a local icon in its own right. Someone heard her singing gospel and urged her to approach her neigh- bor Lena. Bolstered by her success in the cafe’s low-key, intimate environment, Rea - gon went on to found the acclaimed a cappella ensem- ble Sweet Honey in the Rock, in 1973, and has performed at the White House. This was the type of in- spiring narrative that fueled Arem’s quest to conserve the Caffè Lena legacy. “People were afraid of Lena and her ideas when she first opened the cafe,” Arem says. “It was viewed as a beatnik hangout. But Lena eventually won everybody over, even though she was so poor at times that she slept in the cafe in a chair. I hope I have the cour - age to live my passion too.” —Helen S. Edelman ’74


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