Al McKenney – A Special Person Who Will Be Missed

Al McKenney was a very special person.  He harkens back to the “old days” of Saratoga Springs.  By old I mean the 1960’s and 1970’s when a variety of people gravitated to Lena Spencer and her Caffé Lena.  I always thought of these folks as free spirits whose love of music and fun led them out of the main stream.  I guess today we would call them eccentrics.  Al McKenney life embodied those qualities.  I would still run into him at the ‘Chopper or coming out of Celtic Treasures.  Someone wrote a lovely obituary about him that appeared in the September 3rd Saratoga Today.  Here it is.

Alan McKenney

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Wearing suspenders and a purple beret and making daily downtown rounds to share lively chats about politics, music and books, Alan “Captain Fun” McKenney was often called the Unofficial Mayor of Saratoga Springs, NY. He passed away at home in Saratoga Springs on August 15, 2015, amidst his legendary collection of music and books.

Born August 31, 1944, Al was raised in Ashland, MA, by his parents, Margaret Isabel McKenney (neé Honey) and Wallace McKenney, with his brother Owen (deceased) and sister Susan. It was there he discovered the love of music that would form the focus of his life.

As a teenager studying at Boston University in 1964 he immersed himself in the city’s burgeoning folk music scene, soon deciding it had more to offer than college. He spent four years exploring the music clubs and working with troubled children at the Judge Baker Guidance Center. Al had a wonderful way with kids, enjoying their silly humor and quickly developing with them a heap of “inside jokes.”

By 1968, the nation’s progressive social movements and growing hippie culture were causing a generational rift everywhere. Embracing the best of the spirit of the age, Al and a couple friends asked the teens of Ashland what they needed. They wanted a coffeehouse, so he helped them open one in the Ashland Federated Church. Called The Mandela, it offered writing and art supplies along with music, and while the kids handled most of the management, Al began booking the weekend folk concerts. The first two acts were Bob White of Saratoga Springs, and the Millard Fillmore Memorial Orchestra and Chorus (Don Armstrong and Tom Mitchell) also of Saratoga. They both told him about Caffè Lena, the Saratoga Springs coffeehouse that opened in 1960 and had become a major stop on the folk circuit.

Al arrived in Saratoga in 1971 on St. Patrick’s Day, having hitchhiked from Ashland to join folksingers Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, Bill Vanaver, Andy Cohen and several others in forming Wildflowers, a musicians’ booking cooperative. The group lived communally in a big apartment on Grand Avenue and the meetings were held at Caffè Lena where owner Lena Spencer would welcome them with hot lasagna dinners.

By 1973, Wildflowers had broken up and Al found work road managing concert tours, first for David Bromberg and later for Boys of the Lough, Clannad, Martin Bogan and the Armstrongs, and several other prominent acts. He traveled the globe as a tour manager for the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program.

Al also served for many years as the stage manager and emcee of the Smithsonian’s National Folk Festival, Pete Seeger’s Great Hudson River Revival, The Philadelphia Folk Festival, and the Kent State (OH) Folk Festival. He developed such a rich network of friendships in Kent that the people of Kent and Brady Lake, OH, consider him “one of their own.”

Starting in his teens Al collected records, then cassettes and CDs, along with books about music. He amassed more than 10,000 albums and he knew and loved them all. Each day he would find out which musicians were celebrating their birthdays and would give their records a spin to celebrate. He could quote liner notes from decades of jazz, folk and blues albums and he provided a first class music education to anyone who expressed an interest.

Al freely shared lessons learned from beating back the addictions that plagued him during his middle years. By working multiple jobs and keeping expenses to a minimum he repaid every penny of debt accumulated during the dark days and kept clean and sober right to the end, remembering with compassion and love those friends who lost the addiction battle.

Al is survived by his sister, Susan Winter, of Franklin, MA, and nieces Jennifer and Trish, along with hundreds and hundreds of friends, including Paul O’Donnell and William Pouch of Saratoga Springs, Franklyn Whitney of Middle Grove, NY, and Diane “Simba” Piros of Kent, OH.

Memorial gatherings will be held in Massachusetts at the Ashland Historical Society from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, August 30, 2015 and in Saratoga Springs at Gaffney’s on Sunday, September 13, 2015 from 1 to 6 p.m.

Arrangements are under the direction of the William J. Burke & Sons/Bussing & Cunniff Funeral Homes of 628 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs (584-5373).

2 thoughts on “Al McKenney – A Special Person Who Will Be Missed”

  1. I believe that was written by Sarah Craig, the manager of Caffé Lena. Curiously, there’s been no mention of Al’s passing in the Saratogian.

    Like you, I know him for 40 years or so and am sad to hear that he’s gone. Tidbit: A very young Al is on the cover of one of the early Newport Folk Festival LP’s. I’ll do some more research and see if I can point him out.


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