'Spider' John Koerner got caught in folk's web

'Spider' John Koerner (Photo: Daniel Corrigan)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 10, 2004) – To hear John Koerner tell it, one day he was just sitting around minding his own business trying to become an engineer, and the next thing he knew folk music was his destiny.

“A guy in my college dormitory invited me up to his room to hear some records, and he was a player,” said folk-blues legend “Spider” John Koerner – who performs at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Sunday night at 8 – in a recent phone interview.

“Somehow it caught my attention, and I borrowed a guitar and a Burl Ives songbook from him. And a couple of weeks later I could sort of play a song, and a half year later I tried to play my first public thing.”

It was the late-1950s, and the folk revival was gaining steam. Koerner, a native of Rochester, N.Y., was enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study engineering. But the sound of bluesman Josh White grabbed him. “It was the first I heard blues, which was a surprise to me,” said Koerner, who had taken some piano lessons as a child but hated them and quit, and otherwise had little exposure to music. “It was interesting in some ways. It was kind of simple but sensuous music, and the poetry was quite good.”

Like many university towns, Minneapolis was a hotbed of creative ferment at the time. The Beat era was winding down and the Sixties were heating up, and Minneapolis’s alternative scene lured Koerner.

“There were a number of us, musicians, artists, intellectuals, poets, whatever, and we were all hanging out at this place called the 10 O’Clock Scholar near campus,” said the singer/guitarist. Among that group was another musician, Dave Ray, who would become a bandmate later on when the two teamed up with Tony Glover to form a folk-blues trio.

When it was released in 1962, Koerner, Ray and Glover’s “Blues, Rags and Hollers” was a landmark album, one of the first recordings by white musicians to dig deep into the sound of black country blues, with songs by Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie and Bukka White.

“It was one of the first of its kind in that it was young white guys trying to approach blues in a full force way, to try to be like blues guys,” said Koerner. “I don’t remember many white young people who tried to do that before then, especially on the folk scene.”

The trio made their mark quickly, with several follow-up albums in the same vein, and the likes of Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, John Lennon and Bonnie Raitt have paid tribute to their influence.

There was another fellow hanging out at the 10 O’Clock Scholar with Koerner and Ray who would also make a name for himself on the folk and blues scene.

“At the time this was just a bunch of people, and Bob Dylan was just one of them,” said Koerner. “You’d have to say he stuck out for a couple of reasons. One, he had an odd personality -- but then so did most of us. His talent was quite obvious. He was capable of performing without any particular problems it seems. He could write -- you could hear songs he could write that were pretty nicely done. On the other hand, of course, there was no way anybody could have predicted what was going to happen.”

For Koerner, folk music by definition has built-in endurance. “The song originally was interesting enough for people to keep working at it,” he said. “And also it means that it’s all been worked over by the culture. It’s more an example of the culture than any individual person’s work. And it’s most of the time not very complicated music – you’re allowed to put your own style on it.”

“I consider it a mystery,” said Koerner, about how he went from engineering to folk music. “From before the day I met this guy who played this music for me, there was no inkling whatsoever. Getting hooked up with Dave and Tony made some if it happen. And apparently I had an ear for it somehow.

“Then of course part of it was just the fact we were white guys who did the blues thing. That surprised everybody and put us in the middle of the folk scene. From then, the Sixties were happening. It was the heyday of the folk thing and the whole country went nuts, and I was just in place with Dave and Tony, and off it went.”
Koerner will be performing with Chip Smith (fiddle, bones and mandolin), Paul Strothers (bass fiddle) and Robbie Phillips (one-string bass and harmonica). Denice Franke will open the show.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 12, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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