"Spider" John Koerner - 12 string guitar, vocals, harmonica
In direct contrast to the majority of young musicians pursuing American folk and blues during the early 1960's revivals, "Spider" John Koerner was a true innovator and original. Surprisingly, Koerner never intended on becoming a professional musician. As a teenager, he was far more interested in aviation, which in 1956 brought him to the University of Minnesota to pursue studies in aeronautical engineering. Two years later, at the age of 20, Koerner met fellow student, Harry Weber, who first introduced him to folk music. Weber played guitar himself and exposed Koerner to the likes of blues musicians like Josh White, whom he immediately took to. It was at this point that Koerner's interest in folk and blues music began. Shortly thereafter, Koerner dropped out and joined the Marine Corps in pursuit of travel, winding up at Camp Pendleton in San Diego for basic training. This didn't last long as following a few too many beers, Koerner got himself into an altercation that led to his discharge and, by the fall of 1959, he was right back in Minneapolis. A small but vibrant folk music scene was now developing in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis and Koerner dove right in. It was during this time that he became friends with another University of Minneapolis student and aspiring folksinger, Bob Dylan, still a teenager at the time. Koerner and Dylan briefly shared an apartment together and began playing weekend gigs at the 10 O'Clock Scholar, a local coffeehouse a few blocks from the University campus. Koerner was already developing a distinctive repertoire and sound that would have a significant influence on Dylan and eventually influence generations of musicians to follow. Playing 12-string guitar, Koerner developed a raw, highly percussive style of guitar playing accentuated by his foot stomping rhythm. He also emulated black vocalists like Big Joe Williams, singing in a style that was closer to shouting than singing.
Koerner's development took a major leap forward during the early 1960s, when he met Dave Ray, another local folksinger/guitarist who introduced him to harmonica player Tony Glover. Ray and Glover were both enamored with the original forms of Southern country blues dating back to the 1920s, 30s and 40s. At the time, the folk scene in America primarily consisted of committed traditionalists with a political agenda like Pete Seeger and slick, commercially motivated groups like the Kingston Trio. Koerner, Ray, and Glover were far more interested in partying than politics or popularity and since their primary goal was to have a good time playing music together, their attitude was a significant departure from the folk mainstream. Rather than emulating the slick style of groups like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, they went in the opposite direction, intentionally pursuing a style that reflected the raw, rough-edged Delta blues of Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson, as well as the electrified blues sounds coming out of Chicago. Not only did they consciously pursue music that had no commercial potential, but they also pursued the lifestyle. To quote Koerner, "I don't understand the psychology of it, but somehow we decided to imitate these guys down to the note. And we decided to go out and drink and party, and chase women just like they did in the songs." They even went so far as inventing stage nicknames, "Spider" John Koerner, "Snaker" Dave Ray, and Tony "Little Sun" Glover to be more like the musicians they respected.
Koerner, Ray, and Glover were among the first young white musicians to completely embrace this long forgotten music, and in doing so they helped to revitalize it. Even their original songs seemed antiquated, continuing in the same spirit. With the release of their debut album, Blues, Rags and Hollers, and the initial touring that followed, the trio quickly made their mark on the scene. Between 1963 and 1965, the group would release two more highly influential albums and perform at many major folk festivals including Newport, which cemented Koerner's reputation as a groundbreaking musician. Following the release of their third album in 1965, diverging interests led to these three musicians recording and performing solo and in different combinations, as well as occasionally resurrecting the trio format. A loose concept from the beginning, this was a natural step and Elektra assembled solo outtakes from the K, R & G sessions into Koerner's debut album, Spider Blues, in 1965. He appeared at the Newport Folk Festival that year and his performance was partially released on the popular Vanguard album, Festival, the following year. By this point, Koerner's raucous and highly rhythmic approach, as well as his sense of humor, defined his now signature style which combined elements of country blues, field hollers, ragtime and American roots music into a sound uniquely his own.
This remarkable solo performance, recorded at the Ash Grove in early 1967, is a superb document of Koerner in this ragtime-blues phase during his mid-1960's prime. On an impressive bill that also included Taj Mahal, Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachel, this is "Spider" John Koerner continuing to demolish expectations and proving himself to be one of America's greatest folk and blues innovators of the era. Appropriately enough, his set kicks off with a pair of songs from Spider Blues, his solo debut. Both "Delia Holmes," essentially a revamped murder ballad, and the New Orleans flavored "Corrina" which follows clearly demonstrate what is so immediately compelling about Koerner, as he wastes no time bowling over the audience with a combination of chops and sheer forceful power.
The next number, "Eugene C," and a brief segment of "You've Got To Be Careful" were both featured on the 1965 K, R & G album, The Return of Koerner, Ray & Glover. The latter is a mere fragment due to a reel change, but the former reflects Koerner's fascination with travel, a common theme running through much of his music. The middle of this set will be of great interest to both musicians and scholars of Koerner's music as he delivers original variations on Muddy Water's "Rock Me," followed by a take on the traditional, "Stagger Lee," neither included on his own recordings from this era. The next number, with the unverified title of "Tired Of Ramblin'," further explores Koerner's fascination with travel, while "I Don't Want To Be Terrified" reveals his sense of humor. All of these songs are fine examples of his propulsive style of guitar playing and unique blend of influences, not to mention his engaging vocal delivery.
Koerner winds his set to a close by exploring numbers originally featured on the first Koerner, Ray & Glover albums. From their 1963 debut, he delivers solo readings of "Creepy John" and "Good Time Charlie," two signature songs from that earlier era. Just prior to the tape stock running out, a fragment of the walking blues, "Leavin' Here Blues," can also be heard. This too was originally recorded during those sessions, but not included until bonus tracks were issued decades later. These too, are prime examples of Koerner's original guitar stylings and insightful phrasing. Although his picking is fast and clean, it is equally down and dirty. This quality, along with his penetrating vocal delivery, is undeniably compelling and would influence musicians on both sides of the pond, from Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raiit to John Lennon and Eric Clapton, all of whom have cited Koerner as a major influence.
Written by Alan Bershaw
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