‘Born of troubled times,’ Coffee House marks golden year

By Tom Jozwik - Special to TimeOut

May 18, 2017


For 50 years, The Coffee House at Milwaukee’s Redeemer Lutheran Church has been an acoustic music and folk venue.
 Submitted photo

It was a volatile era, that period in and around 1967. The Vietnam War was at its apex, race riots raged in cities including Milwaukee, demonstrations of dissatisfaction were being mounted the world over.

A Milwaukee manifestation of hope was - and is - a simply named alcohol-free “listening room” near the Marquette University campus. According to a news release regarding its 50th anniversary, which will be celebrated Saturday, “The Coffee House was born of the troubled, yet hopeful times of the ‘60s.”

The Coffee House, 1905 W. Wisconsin Ave., began in conjunction with the Lutheran Campus Ministry at Marquette and has always been situated at Redeemer Lutheran Church. Lutheran minister “Alan Davis was really the spark plug,” Coffee House spokesman David HB Drake recalled. A mission statement indicates its founders envisioned The Coffee House as “a place where persons may meet in unhurried conversation and where the questions, the issues, the interests, the hopes that lie within and around us may unfold in an atmosphere of openness and candor.”

A well-known folk performance artist from Milwaukee - his sobriquet is “Milwaukee’s troubadour” -  who formerly resided in Waukesha, Drake began his affiliation with The Coffee House 49 years ago. “Practically every acoustic musician (from the area) who ever made it to the middle range (of celebrity) started there,” Drake said in a recent interview. “The first thing I ever did in public is opening for someone else at The Coffee House.”

According to the release, The Coffee House is among the nation’s oldest continuous folk sites. The Coffee House bills itself as “an acoustic music and spoken word venue,” that last phrase in deference to the poetry, skits and such. “Lutheran churches have Bible study; well, this was societal study,” Drake explained.

And just how would Drake define “acoustic music”? “Music without commercial additives,” the singer-songwriter and player of several instruments offered. “Songs that have a story to them ... teaching you something or making a comment, without special effects. If you pulled the plug, the (acoustic) performer could keep on going. Rock bands would be dead in the water.”

The noted entertainer suggested that Larry Penn would be The Coffee House’s most accomplished alumnus. Penn died three years ago at 87. “I would consider him the Milwaukee singer-songwriter who went the farthest,” said Drake. “Pete Seeger recorded his songs.”

Several performers whose reputations reach well beyond the Milwaukee-Waukesha area will visit The Coffee House Saturday, when “Wisconsin’s longest-running acoustic music venue” marks its milestone anniversary. Madison-based musical humorists Lou and Peter Berryman; bandleader-guitarist Bill Camplin, who identifies his hometown as “Fort Atkinson by way of Pewaukee,” owns a nightclub in the former city and has collaborated on projects with Peter Buffett; and family-focused music men Dave Fox and Will Branch, who have encouraged audience participation in gigs from Winnipeg to southern Louisiana, will be concert headliners.

The anniversary celebration, slated to run from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., will also feature such pillars of the local folk scene as Sandy Weisto, John Stano, Peter Lee, Jym Mooney, Mud River Lee, Tom and Barb Webber, and Drake himself. Sessions on poetry and humor, songwriting and social justice are to be offered, as well as a PowerPoint presentation on the venue’s half-century. For more information, visit

A $5 freewill offering is being requested of attendees, who are invited to dine, and bring a dish to share, at a 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. potluck meal.