Clockwise from top: George Dawson, Jackie and Bridie, Jack Washington, Don McLean George Dawson, Jackie and Bridie, Jack Washington, Don McLean George Dawson, Jackie and Bridie, Jack Washington, Don McLean George Dawson, Jackie and Bridie, Jack Washington, Don McLean
Nestled in a cozy second-story space in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York, Caffè Lena is recognized as the oldest continuously operating coffeehouse in the United States. It was opened in 1960 by the late Lena Spencer, who believed in giving fledgling artists a chance and offering audiences an opportunity to see first-rate folk music for a reasonable price.
A young Bob Dylan played there. So did Arlo Guthrie, Ani DiFranco, Emmylou Harris, and many others. Contrary to folklore, though, while Don McLean did appear at Caffè Lena, he did not write American Pie while living in Saratoga Springs, nor did he perform it for the first time at Caffè Lena.
Lena came into my life in the summer of 1966, says McLean, who also remembers being complimented once by Dylan at a Caffè Lena benefit after-party. [It] was a real hard-core, folky club. I was just a fresh-faced kid from Westchester. But I was a songwriter, and I sang all kinds of different things. I didnt know how it would go over with [the] real hard-core folk people. In spite of that, Lena really liked me a lot.
She was the first and last person I ever knew who would pay me more money than we agreed upon. One show I did in 1967, she gave me 300 bucks. My jaw dropped. She said, We did very well, so I wanted to share it with you.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Caffè Lena continues to serve coffee and tea with cookies and cake (no alcohol allowed) while welcoming established artists, as well as open-mike hopefuls. Recently, the Library of Congress acquired the cafes archives for its American Folklife Center.
Despite its status as the grande dame of java joints, Caffè Lena remains as unpretentious today as it was when Bob Dylan strummed his first chord there and before American Pie became a sumptuous slice of Americana. 47 Phila Street, (518) 583-0022, www.caffelena.org