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Spider John Koerner - Koernering The Market

“My parents both came from Minnesota, actually. My grandfather and great grandfather were both ministers out there. Anyway, I went to the University and worked at the school there and did pretty well for about a year and a half, as an engineering student. And then there was one of those sort of things that happen all in one day. I was collecting my mail down at the office, and another fellow called Harry Weber was there and he asked if I wanted to come up and listen to some folk music. He had some records that he played, I believe they were The Weavers, Josh White, maybe Burl Ives, that kind of thing. He also had a guitar and he played some songs, and I was fascinated by it. I borrowed the guitar and a Burl Ives songbook for a couple of weeks, and somehow it wasn’t all that hard, you know. I learned a couple of songs at that point.”

“That was the beginning of it. There was a small scene going on at the time where once a month or something like that a bunch of people would get together with banjos and guitars, sing songs. There was some kind of a political bent to some of it, but most of it was just people interested in traditional music.”

Koerner had no idea that what he was getting involved in was the start of a national phenomenon that would sweep the States and eventually the Western world. “At the time, it was just something that happened and I didn’t have any idea what was coming along. I was starting to learn about it and learning more and more songs so that I could perform a little bit. The first job I had was about six months after I started, at a fraternity party. I played a few folk songs. And some girls were there who had to give a dance thing and they wanted some folk music for that to accompany them, so I did that. And then I was in it, you know.”

“And somehow that was the beginning of the end of the school. It was very shortly after that I started hanging out with this guy, and one day I just quit school, took what money I had, we got in his car, we drove to Florida and through New Orleans over to Los Angeles. This was the first time I was out on my own and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I got kind of lost at it and I joined the United States Marine Corps – something I still marvel at that I ever did. I went through the boot camp out there in San Diego, and then up to infantry training regiment. Then a couple of things happened. I’d been there about a week and I got in a car accident, which was fairly serious, and that put me in the hospital for a while. While I was there it was the first time I had a chance to think. I started thinking about just getting out! So I used a few methods, and in another few months I managed to get free of the military. Also, while I was there waiting for that to happen, there was a Playboy magazine which had an article about this new phenomenon, the folk music coffee houses, including some of them up in Los Angeles, so I went up to check those out and that was quite interesting. People were performing and they were getting good audiences.”

“When I got out, which was July 1959, I took a sort of route back to Minneapolis, got to Minneapolis in the early fall, and to my surprise we had our own version of it in the part of Minneapolis called Dinky Town – that’s a student area, very near the University – and Bob Dylan was there, this Harry Weber fellow was there. Dave Ray was there and a bunch of other crazy people, some artists and poets and other musicians, and I kind of fell into that bunch. We’d go down the street and get some beer and go into the apartments upstairs and have parties and play music. And that was the beginning of it becoming semi-serious for me.”

Koerner & Glover 1964
Koerner & Glover 1964 Photo: Dick Waterman

“I’d heard some blues which I thought were kind of interesting. Josh White was one. It was kind of slick, but it gave me the feeling of what that was all about. Dave Ray was into it, and I started getting into it largely by virtue of hanging out with him. I can’t remember exactly how I met Tony Glover. Actually, I went back to Rochester, New York, for a while, and I used to go down the Village in New York City, and started getting interested in that scene. Dave eventually wound up living there for a while, and on one of those trips to visit Dave, that’s how I met Tony, and that kinda made all that more solid. They were into getting the old recordings, as best they could, and finding obscure stuff, and then that became my bag, along with them. And we proceeded for a couple of years at that. You know, there were people on the East Coast and West Coast doing blues, but they were not jumping into it head first and just going for it, and somehow we wound up doing that, and tried to sort of live the life, in a sense.”

“Dave had a lot of tapes. He knew guys from around the University, sort of the academic stuff. He was a friend of a guy whose dad had got some recordings of Leadbelly when he was in Minnesota in the late ’40s. He was there for almost a month. I was going around the record shops and getting old 78s and stuff like that.”

“Dave was out there avoiding going to college and working in the garment district. He had a job being a professional beatnik for a while. He’d sit in the window of a coffee house with a beret on and read, so they’d have some atmosphere when the tour buses came round.”

“There was this one coffee house that was like an old house that was converted – not very much converted – and it didn’t have no sign on, you had to know it was there. Dave and I played Friday and Saturday nights, and Tony played Thursday and Sunday, something like that…A lot of the playing got done at after-hours parties. That’s when we really got together. We were hanging out and developing this more or less together. There was a couple of guys who had a magazine called the Little Sandy Review and they were interested in what we were doing and gave us some nice reviews. They also got us in contact with the record company that made the first record, out in Milwaukee. That’s Audiophile Records.”

Blues, Rags & Hollers came out on the tiny Audiophile label in the summer of 1963. A few gigs and several hundred sales later, it came to the attention of Elektra’s Jac Holzman, who promptly bought the masters and re-issued it, shorn of four tracks to bring it down to a length where a better vinyl pressing quality could be achieved. These were finally re-instated on the Red House CD re-issue, which also has lengthy and fascinating notes by Tony Glover about the local scene at the time and the events surrounding the recording. Meanwhile, as Glover told me in 1995, word was spreading…

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


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