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Spider John Koerner - Koernering The Market

America’s most original folk blues stomper returned to the UK in summer 2010 for his first tour in nearly thirty years. Ian Anderson caught up with a hero.

Spider John Koerner is an American national treasure, a genuine folk blues hero. Bizarrely, most of his fellow countrypersons remain blissfully unaware of this, in spite of his being one of the key figures of the 1960s folk boom, an influence on the young Bob Dylan, a recording artist for the revered Elektra label and admired by the likes of John Lennon. They ignore his continuing status today as a true stylistic original, and one of the few people still breathing life into the American folk song repertoire from the classic collections. Without getting all biblical about a prophet being without honour in his own country, there are times when I think he’s been more appreciated over here.

“The word inimitable could have been coined for Spider John Koerner,” said Martin Simpson last year. “A staggeringly singular guitarist and singer of blues and American traditional songs, he has influenced many musicians but no one has come close to his unbelievably funky guitar style.” In a relatively rare outburst of local acclaim, the New Yorker recently opined that “His influence on twentieth-century music aside, watching Koerner perform might be the closest you can get to understanding how, more than eighty years ago, Charley Patton alone on guitar kept a roomful of people dancing and partying until the sun came up.” Yet he goes glaringly unrecognised for the Lifetime Achievement Awards handed out by the folk establishment and government cultural schemes.

I asked Mark Moss, editor of American folk bible Sing Out! magazine, why this might be. “I think part of the reason for the lack of proper respect is that folks moved from fawning over the source singers/players to lamenting their passing without ever giving just due to the first generation of heroes who saved that ‘real stuff’ from obscurity, longer ago now than that original music was when they revived it. The same is true, really, for a decent list of other folks who became templates/guides to lots of early country and blues revivalists. I know I'm eternally surprised by how little coverage that bridge generation have got over the years. They wrote articles for Sing Out! more often than they got written about! Those first two Koerner, Ray & Glover records, especially, were an essential inspiration for a generation of players. No question. I know my copies were worn nearly flat!”

I became a fan of Koerner, Ray & Glover – a loosely structured trio with 12-string guitarist Dave Ray and harmonica player Tony Glover who were more often than not soloists or duos – through imported copies of that series of Blues, Rags & Hollers LPs. But it was in 1965 that Koerner himself blazed across my musical skies. Elektra released his Spider Blues, and he began solo touring in the UK. I attempted to describe the startling effect he had on your youthful editor-to-be in a 1995 fRoots interview: That year I’d left home, moved to bed-sitter land in Bristol, trying to hold down a day job and be an apprentice folk bluesman at night. Koerner came to town to play at – good grief, I can’t remember – either the University Folk & Blues club or the Ballads & Blues down in the city. He was staggering: all long, lanky legs that stretched on forever until terminating in a pair of army boots, fingers that seemed to somehow bend back on themselves as he frailed impossibly complex rhythms out of one of those wondrous Gretsch flat-tops with a plectrum-shaped soundhole, like Ramblin’ Jack used to play. And at the end of the night, it turned out that the club had (as folk clubs often did, and probably still do) failed to honour their obligation to provide accommodation, so I dutifully kidnapped my hero and gave him a bed for the night. It was the one and only time in my life that I ever slept in the bath…

Koerner, 1964
Koerner, 1964

Over the next couple of years, Koerner regularly toured the UK and I saw him perform on numerous occasions. I never tired of his early “hits” like Crazy Fool, Creepy John, Good Time Charlie, Whomp Bom, Good Luck Child and Ramblin’ And Tumblin’, and especially his trio of “epics”, Duncan And Brady, Hangman and Rent Party Rag, which he would spin out into free-association tall-tales lasting 10 or 15 minutes; never, I swear ever, even remotely similar two nights in a row. He was the only one of that era’s American white bluesmen who was really seriously admired by us chaps on the British country blues scene like Jo Ann Kelly, Mike Cooper and myself.

Before I’d even seen him live, I’d read Little Sandy Review editor Paul Nelson’s descriptive notes to Spider Blues. “Spider John Koerner, six feet of legs, his Belmondo cap tipped back, his long legs, those incredibly long spider legs… unrolling… like strands of yarn spilling out to meet his boots… Spider John Koerner, good friend, film aficionado, blues singer, songwriter, unique and original personality…”

And I’d absorbed Koerner’s own comments on there: “You know that the white guys are not the same as the old blues guys and if you think they are, you’re crazy, but you still want to make good swinging music. Okay, once you have figured that out and start fooling with the music so that you don’t think so much, then you are doing some stuff, maybe even your own stuff. You start thinking about little rhythms – boombachika – and like that. You start thinking about little notes and chords that really work and you think how good it feels to snap the strings with your fingers and it’s a treat to beat your feet on the upbeat and put ‘em together and what have you got – bipity bopity blues and you know that’s right.” Bipity bopity blues! Eureka! Hero!

So he toured, he amazed with his style, his drive, his weirdly strung guitars. He retired for a year and moved to Denmark, coming back with a different repertoire. His career waned and waxed. I once commented in sleeve notes when Hot Vultures recorded his Taking My Time, a veritable paean to procrastination, that if the song illustrated his philosopy of life, it probably explained why his musical career showed a marked degree of inertia for many years! But he’s always been a hero.

Red House Records eventually recorded a series of fine albums with him like 1996’s Stargeezer, plus the appropriately titled Legends Of Folk shared with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Utah Phillips as well as reissuing the three KR&G albums. Somewhere in there he had a triple bypass heart operation (rumours were that long-time fan Bonnie Raitt helped out with the bills) and came back good and strong. KR&G re-formed but eventually Dave Ray passed away. We kept in touch, even though his last proper UK tour was in 1981 when he excelled at Cambridge Folk Festival.

I got to see the Koerner, Ray & Glover trio just once, at the 1995 Winnipeg Folk Festival in Canada when they’d briefly reformed. I talked to John at the time about his early days.

“Well, I was born in ’38 and brought up in Rochester, New York, except for two years during World War II when I was a kid. Lived in Oakridge, Tennessee for a couple of years. Just grew up normally in Rochester, went to high school there. I was good at science and mathematics and I had an interest in flying and airplanes at the time – used to be a model airplane builder, so by virtue of all that I went to the University of Minnesota as an aeronautical engineering student. That was 1956.”

From fRoots 325, July 2010 – incorporating some sections from an earlier interview published in fR150, December 1995


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