The packed house, 80 people jammed around small tables, laughed. Then Smither wrapped his gravelly voice and blue acoustic guitar around “Desolation Row,” putting the crowd a little deeper in his pocket.

It was both an homage to a legend and a reflection of the present. Smither himself has been on the road since about 1966. He has no plans to hang up his six string.

By their own accounts, folksingers keep going until they can’t. Then maybe somebody passes the hat.

Which Caffe Lena will do for Dave Van Ronk at a benefit concert January 5.

Van Ronk has played the coffeehouse every year since it opened in 1960. This fall he had to cancel. He had cancer surgery.

“Dave does have medical insurance to pay for the surgery itself,” according to Folklore Productions, his booking agency. “However, the hardest hit is in loss of income.”

Like Dylan, Van Ronk came out of the Greenwich Village folk boom of the early ’60s. After 40 years on tour, with at least 26 albums in his discography, Van Ronk needs to keep touring, selling CDs, giving guitar lessons.

“Most folk musicians don’t retire,” said Al McKenney, who will emcee the benefit. “They just have to keep working.”

Van Ronk, 65, who still calls Greenwich Village home, had surgery in November. He’s booked to play in Cambridge, Mass., and Canton, Ct., in early March, during a six-month course of chemotherapy.

He was in the hospital last week and unavailable to talk, said Mary Katherine Aldin of Folklore. At a November 25 benefit for him at The Bottom Line in New York, performers included Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie and Peter, Paul and Mary, she said. Another is planned for February in the Hudson Valley town of Pawling.

“Passing the hat is one of the oldest traditions in folk music,” Aldin said. “You pass the hat when somebody’s in need.”

At Caffe Lena, Rosalie Sorrels and David Amram are playing for free, said manager Sarah Craig. Tickets will cost $25.

A symbiotic relationship links performers and the coffeehouse founded by Lena Spencer in 1960. When the building’s owners decided to sell in 1998, nine years after Spencer’s death, a benefit was organized to help the cafe’s trustees buy the space. Large contributions came from performers like Ani DiFranco and Bonnie Raitt.

It’s a labor of love.

“If you like what you’re doing, keep on doing it long as you can,” said Pete Seeger. “I don’t have much voice left, but I keep on singing.”

At 82, Seeger was singing one recent night in Poughkeepsie, the next night in Beacon, near his Hudson River home.

Spencer, known for feeding and housing itinerant musicians, was living in the back room of the venerable brick-walled coffeehouse with bill collectors at the door before she died at age 66.

“Folk music is up and down,” McKenney said, “so you’ve just got to keep going.”

The pay ranges from opening for free – a chance to get exposure and sell CDs – to about $5,000 for a select few at big venues, Craig said.

The folk scene has some modern accouterments. On the Internet, you can buy Smither’s 10 CDs, find the address to send a check to Van Ronk, or see the coffeehouse schedule. If you’re a touring musician, you can apply online to join

Local 1000 of the American Federation of Musicians and get health insurance and a pension plan, though it takes five years to get vested and benefits generally begin at 65. The 380-member local is mostly folk performers.

“If I hadn’t checked it out very thoroughly before I invested in it, I’d have dismissed it as a Ponzi scheme,” Smither said. It’s overfunded, with generous payouts, in part because many musicians die young and others don’t remember to collect, he said.

“It makes retirement an option,” said John McCutcheon, president of the union local, which he helped found about eight years ago.

“Before this, traveling acoustic musicians thought there was no option,” he said. “And in truth, unless you were making the big bucks, there wasn’t.”

Some might never need it.

This year has been the 57-year-old Smither’s best financially, and included tours of England, Ireland and Australia.

He also gets royalties when other singers, like Raitt and Emmylou Harris, cover his songs.

“In general, I think that folksingers have a pretty good time of it. If they can manage to get established they have a pretty long career arc,” he said. “They tend to be more respected the older they get, and the longer they last.”

Rachael Davis, who opened for Smither in Saratoga, is just starting out. She has a CD, with 10 songs that took a couple of years to write. At Lena’s, where somebody said she sounded like Jewel, she sold several.

“Basically what I want to be able to do is make a living doing music,” Davis said.

“Opening for people is what gets you heard. Maybe you’ll sell some CDs and get some names on the mailing list. But

I’m happy just playing for a full room of people. I don’t mind that there’s no money in it.”

She’s 21. Like Seeger, she plans to play until she can’t anymore.

“There’s nothing that I love more,” Davis said. “My goal is to never have a real job again.”