Saturday, February 09, 2019

For Kate McGarrigle’s Birthday- In Honor Of Lena Spencer- Caffé Lena And Saratoga’s Folk Scene

For The Late Rosalie Sorrels-In Honor Of Lena Spencer- Caffé Lena And Saratoga’s Folk Scene

If I Could Be The Rain I Would Be Rosalie Sorrels-The Legendary Folksinger-Songwriter Has Her Last Go Round At 83 (June 2017)

By Music Critic Bart Webber

Back the day, back in the emerging folk minute of the 1960s that guys like Sam Lowell, Si Lannon, Josh Breslin, the late Peter Paul Markin and others were deeply immersed in all roads seemed to lead to Harvard Square with the big names passing through the Club 47 Mecca and later the Café Nana and Club Blue, the Village down in NYC, North Beach out in San Francisco, and maybe Old Town in Chicago. That is where names like Baez, Dylan, Paxton, Ochs, Collins and a whole crew of younger folksingers who sat at the feet of guys like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger got their first taste of the fresh breeze of the folk minute (that expression courtesy of the late Markin, who was among the first around to sample the breeze. (I should tell you here in parentheses so you will keep it to yourselves that the former three mentioned above never got over that folk minute since they will still tell a tale or two about the times, about how Dave Van Ronk came in all drunk one night at the Café Nana and still blew everybody away, about catching Paxton changing his Army uniform when he was stationed down at Fort Dix  right before a performance at the Gaslight, about walking down the street Cambridge with Tom Rush just after he put out No Regrets/Rockport Sunday, and about affairs with certain up and coming female folkies at the Club Nana when that was the spot of spots. Strictly aficionado stuff if you go anywhere within ten miles of the subject with any of them -I will take my chances here because this notice, this passing of legendary Rosalie Sorrels a decade after her dear friend Utah Phillips is important)

Those urban locales were the high white note spots but there was another important strand that hovered around Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, up around Skidmore and some other colleges. That was Caffe Lena’s, run by the late Lena Spenser, a true folk legend and character in her own right, where some of those names played but also where some upstarts from the West got a chance to play the small crowds who gathered at that famed (and still existing) coffeehouse. Upstarts like Bruce “Utah” Phillips (although he could call several places home Utah was key to what he would sing about and rounded out his personality. And out of Idaho one Rosalie Sorrels who just joined her long-time friend Utah in that last go-round at the age of 83.

Yeah, out there in the West, not the West Coast west that is different, where what the novelist Thomas Wolfe called the place where the states were square and you had better be as well if you didn’t want to starve or be found in some empty arroyo un-mourned and unloved. A tough life when the original pioneers drifted westward from Eastern nowhere looking for that pot of gold or at least some fresh air and a new start away from crowded cities and sweet breathe vices. Tough going for guys like Joe Hill who tried to organize the working people against the sweated robber barons of his day (they are still with us as we are all now very painfully and maybe more vicious than their in your face forbear). Tough too when you landed in rugged beautiful two-hearted river Idaho, tried to make a go of it in Boise, maybe stopped short in Helena but you get the drift. A different place and a different type of subject matter for your themes.  

The last time I saw Rosalie perform in person was back in 2002 when she performed at what was billed as her last go-round, her hanging up her shoes from the dusty travel road. She was on fire that night except the then recent death of another folk legend, Dave Von Ronk, who was supposed to be on the bill (and who was replaced by David Bromberg who did a great job) cast a pall over the proceedings. I will always remember her cover of her classic Old Devil Time that night -yeah, give me one more chance, one more breathe. But I will always think of If I Could Be The Rain whenever I hear her name. RIP Rosalie Sorrels


Caffé Lena, Kate McGarrigle and various artists, directed by Stephen Trombley, Miramar Production, 1991

I know of the work of, and have reviewed in this space, the late Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, obviously Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, The McGarrigle family, David Bromberg and many of the other “singing” heads that populate this tribute documentary or found their way to Café Lena’s. Lena Spencer, owner, operator (and, from all accounts off-hand fairy godmother), through thick and thin, as thoroughly documented here , of Saratoga’s Café Lena was the impresario of the upstate New York’s booming 1960s folk scene. So there is a certain sense of déjà vu in viewing this film. This documentary film was probably as much about our youthful dreams and ambitions (and that hard musical road, although voluntarily chosen) as it was a tribute to Lena.

I know Saratoga and its environs well and if New York City’s Greenwich Village and Cambridge’s Harvard Square are better known in the 1960s folk revival geography that locale can serve as the folk crowd’s summer watering hole (and refuge from life’s storms all year round). From the descriptions of the café ‘s lifestyle and of the off-beat personality of Lena it also was a veritable experiment in ad hoc communal living). The folkies that did find found refuge there have been interesting behind- the- scenes stories to tell about Len that make this a very nice slice of history of the folk revival of the 1960s.

A special note to kind of bring us full circle. My first CD review of folksinger Rosalie Sorrels and the late Utah Phillips combined works together, who are highlighted in this documentary along with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, mentioned a spark of renewed recognition kindled on my part by the famous folk coffee house “The Café Lena” in Saratoga Springs, New York. Thus, it is rather fitting that Rosalie performs Utah’s “If I Could Be The Rain” and Utah his “Starlight On The Rails” here. Even more fitting are the McGarrigles performing their “Talk To Me Of Mendocino”, song composed in honor of Lena.

"Talk to Me of Mendocino"

written by Kate McGarrigle
© 1975 Garden Court Music (ASCAP)

I bid farewell to the state of old New York
My home away from home
In the state of New York I came of age
When first I started roaming
And the trees grow high in New York State
And they shine like gold in the autumn
Never had the blues from whence I came
But in New York State I got 'em

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait
Must I follow
Won't you say come with me

And it's on to South Bend, Indiana
Flat out on the western plain
Rise up over the Rockies
And down on into California
Out to where but the rocks again
And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I'll rise with it till I rise no more

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait
Must I follow
Won't you say come with me

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