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Spider John Koerner - Koernering The Market

“The thing of us trying to work together as a trio kind of came after Elektra Records had picked us up. We sent some records out to some companies and they decided to have us do a second album, and we went out to NYC and after the recording was done, it turned out that they could get us on as late night additions at the ‘63 Philadelphia Folk Festival. Up to that point nobody really heard of us yet. I don’t know, we had a few drinks, and we were feeling pretty good and we came on stage, did our kind of wild boys act, and it caught people by surprise, but they enjoyed it.”

Koerner suggests they had an easy ride. “We followed, I think, the closing set of the regular concert which was Theodore Bikel who did like a three-day set in Serbo-Croatian. Anything that had a rhythm to it would have woken people up, and we definitely had a lot of rhythm. Kweskin’s Jug Band was also on the same show, I remember that. Us and the Kweskins were kinda like the young Turks. Everybody else was getting kinda serious about traditional folk music and we were out there having a good time and saying ‘what the hell?’.”

In September 2009, four and a half decades after I first met him as a teenage fan, we had the pleasure of hosting the now 71-year-old Koerner for a gig at the Green Note as he briefly passed through London after an Irish trip. The sold-out audience thrilled as he wheeled and stomped his way through a set of great American folk standards, the sort of songs ingrained into the consciousness of folkpersons of a certain age but hardly anybody sings any more – Acres Of Clams, Wabash Cannonball, The Days Of 49, St James Infirmary, Danville Girl – all in his completely original, funkily syncopated style, those long spider legs still spilling out to meet those rhythmic boots.

Koerner, Ray & Glover with Big Joe Williams
Koerner, Ray & Glover with Big Joe Williams

The following day John and I sat in the fRoots kitchen and continued the conversation about his early days, philosophy, influences and general guitar player bollocks. I started by recalling Bob Dylan’s reference to him in his book Chronicles, talking about his young days in Minneapolis, running into John Koerner in a club. “With my newly learned repertoire, I… dropped into the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a Beat coffeehouse,” wrote Bob, “I was looking for players with kindred spirits. The first guy I met in Minneapolis like me was sitting around in there. It was John Koerner and he also had an acoustic guitar with him. Koerner was tall and thin with a look of perpetual amusement on his face. We hit it off right away. When he spoke he was soft spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter. Koerner was an exciting singer, and we began playing a lot together. I learned a lot of songs off Koerner…”

“Well, I’ve read the book,” says John, “and sometimes what I see is either he’s got a better memory than I have or he’s making stuff up. It could be either way. Because some of that I don’t remember all that well, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But the general sense of it is correct.”

“I think that was something that was happening all over, but that’s the first I came across it. It was starting to happen everywhere and Minneapolis… Minneapolis is an interesting town. People definitely got their own style there and they don’t need to be from the East Coast or the West Coast, they don’t give a shit about either one of those, they’re part of their own style. So there was that scene going on and Dave Ray was part of it and Dylan… everybody knew that he was Zimmerman, but he was calling himself Dylan, so then you had your choices about what you wanted to call him.”

“So that scene was going on there. Also there was the guy who started me out on playing guitar. One day I was an engineer, the next day I was beginning to do the other thing. Harry Weber was the guy that first got me interested in the music. He played a six-string guitar and did folk music. Actually at some point there was a bunch of people who would get together on some nights, banjo players, guitar players and all that, and what was going around was bits of traditional folk stuff. That’s kind of what he played.”

The first of the old blues guys that Koerner encountered personally was Big Joe Williams, a rough old travelling country bluesman from Tennessee, famous for his song Baby Please Don’t Go – later covered by everybody – and his ramshackle nine-string guitar.

“We used to hang out with Big Joe. This guy had a coffee house, actually had a couple of ’em, but he somehow brought Big Joe to Minneapolis. He was something else, I tell ya. He had that nine-string. And it was put together so crudely you couldn’t believe it. And I just realised at that point that if you want to screw round your guitar and change it, it’s easy. It was definitely ‘Oh, OK, you can do that’.”

“One of the records that opened my eyes to the whole deal was the record put out by Sam Charters called The Country Blues – quite a variety of stuff from jug bands to back-porch guys and stuff like that, and at that point I realised that this thing is a little wider than I had previously thought and, not only that, but you can steal from everybody, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Was Jesse Fuller – one-man band and composer of era standard San Francisco Bay Blues – ever around?

“Sure. Around 1960 I got on a motorcycle with Red Nelson in Minneapolis, and we drove all the way to L.A. and later on up to San Francisco – somehow I had a job playing the Troubadour or some place up there – along with Jesse Fuller. They called him Jesse ‘Lone Cat’ Fuller, you know, and boy, he lived up to it! He stayed in the club. He laid out a sleeping bag on the stage, and I think he had a radio or television, or something like that, and that was it. And we were all really drunk, and screwing around with fire extinguishers and all that shit, and he came and said ‘You boys get the hell out of here, I’m trying to sleep!’ He was one of the good ones, that’s for sure.”

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


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