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April 24, 2010

'Spider' John Koerner - Spider Blues

Well it's been forever since I've posted anything blues- or jug-band-related, so I thought I'd reward the patience of my blues-loving readers and post this rarity. The most striking thing about this record, to me, is how it just feels subtly 'off'. As in, this is a white kid trying his very best to sound like a big black guy, and getting really close - I mean blindfold test close! He even took the 'handle' of Spider to add to his name. A la Blind Joe Death, you know? Same impulse, different direction. Like John Hammond too. But it's still, not quite right: not quite natural. But it's a subtle point, and aside from that, the record's really fun, the sound sparse bouncy, the playing finely honed but still raw. Really it's worth the price just for the last track, Rent Party Rag, in which Spider John sounds like a one-man-jug-band. And, apparently, he was the primary influence on Peter Lang in his early development.

"Alone among the young blues revivalists, Koerner had a sound that was completely idiosyncratic and personal. From the first guitar riff, there was never any doubt about who was playing. Today the material has changed but the sound is intact...spare and funky, with lots of open spaces between oddly placed notes, all of it held together with his impeccable timing."--Blueswire

Anyone who maintains that a white man can’t sing the blues has likely never come across “Spider” John Koerner. A Rochester native who was integral to the Minneapolis, Minnesota folk scene of the ’60s, Koerner has spent much of his career creating albums that inspired generations of white folk artists to explore their roots.

Bob Dylan, who encountered him in the Dinkytown neighborhood near the University of Minnesota, sang his praises in Chronicles; so have artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt and David Bowie. Unlike the popular pop adaptations of stolen and reinterpreted songs in the folk style that were passed off as real folk music (from the Kingston Trio, the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary), Koerner and his associates Dave “Snaker” Ray and Tony “Little Sun” Glover made music that felt authentic. Though Ray passed away some years back, Koerner has performed consistently both with Glover and also solo, which is a boon to those who remember the ’60s as well as those who experienced it on TV.

As any self-respecting listener is well aware, the history of American popular music is a rather messy affair, characterized by a rape and tiptoe two-step that’s anything but pretty. What’s more difficult to admit is that sometimes both tendencies appear in the foreground at once; when a British “blues” band co-opts a Robert Johnson tune in full, it’s not entirely clear whether they’re playing tribute or trampling or both. It may be better to trust your gut, and it’s hard to trust the saccharine cleanliness of blues better heard in the parlor than in the barroom. And the brilliant thing about Koerner, Ray and Glover is that there appears to be less of a gulf between them and Huddie Ledbetter than with many of their Minnesota contemporaries. Blues is a dirty affair, after all, and Koerner’s music is anything but pristine.

Woe to the musician whose second album was praised in the liner notes for its “real understanding of Negro musical styles” and how it is “unbelievable that any white musician could come so close to the sound of Negro performance.” But it’s a challenge to listen to “Hangman” and “Ramblin’ Blues” from Blues, Rags & Hollers and distinguish the Ledbetter from the Koerner.

Speaking to him from his home on New Year’s Eve, Koerner admitted that the whole thing was, in a sense, pretty “weird.” “It’s kind of strange that at that age, I wanted to act like a black guy. And be like black guys — some of whom didn’t know how to read. Here we were, college kids, who got it in our mind to do like it was in the songs — drinking and partying, and chasing women.” Whatever the intentions, though, Koerner, Ray and Glover created music that went beyond mirroring the idiom of blues to create something wholly original within a tradition. It is nothing less than inspiring that Koerner is keeping the flame burning.

[Text by Luke Z. Fenchel; From the Ithaca Times]

Biography by William Ruhlmann
"Spider" John Koerner has been an influential practitioner of traditional folk music and country blues since the days of the late-'50s/early-'60s folk revival. Both in his group, Koerner, Ray & Glover, and on his own, he has helped popularize early folk and blues music through his performances and recordings, directly affecting the careers of Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, and influencing many others.

Koerner grew up in Rochester, NY, where he was initially interested in flying, not music. He obtained a student glider-pilot license at 15, and when he graduated from high school in 1956, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to study aeronautic engineering. But in 1958, he was introduced to folk music by a campus acquaintance and took to it heavily, learning to play the guitar and dropping out of college to travel the country as a folksinger. He briefly joined the Marine Corps, then returned to Minneapolis in the fall of 1959, where he became a fixture in the coffeehouses of Dinky Town, the bohemian area around the University of Minnesota. There he encountered and played with a new undergraduate, Bob Zimmerman, who soon took the stage name Bob Dylan. He also met guitarist Dave Ray, who introduced him to harmonica player Tony Glover in the spring of 1962 while they were in New York City. The three began to play together there and back in Minneapolis formed the group Koerner, Ray & Glover. They adopted nicknames in the manner of old blues players: Ray became "Snaker," Glover "Little Sun," and Koerner, in reference to his long, skinny arms and legs, "Spider."

Koerner, Ray & Glover recorded an album, Blues, Rags & Hollers, that was released on the tiny Milwaukee-based independent Audiophile Records label in June 1963. Folk label Elektra Records then signed the group and bought the album from Audiophile, reissuing it in an abridged form in November. Lots More Blues, Rags & Hollers followed in June 1964. The trio appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in July, and their performance was recorded for the Vanguard Records album Newport Folk Festival 1964: Evening Concerts III (released in May 1965) and filmed for the motion-picture documentary Festival (which opened in October 1967). The group was always a loose aggregation, frequently breaking down in performance into duos and solos, and it was natural for the three to play separately. In 1965, Koerner and Ray each made solo albums for Elektra (actually assembled by the label from solo performances done at Koerner, Ray & Glover recording sessions). Koerner's was Spider Blues, released in May. He then appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, his performance captured on the Vanguard LP Festival -- Newport Folk Festival 1965, released in 1966. Koerner, Ray & Glover made one more album for Elektra, The Return of Koerner, Ray & Glover, released in October 1965, and an archival album of 1963-64 live recordings, Good Old Koerner, Ray and Glover (aka Live at St. Olaf Festival), was released by Mill City Records in January 1972. But the trio ceased to be a full-time act by 1966.

Koerner continued to play the folk circuit as a solo performer, appearing at such prestigious clubs as the Ash Grove in Los Angeles and Club 47 in Cambridge, MA. He made a trip to England in 1968 and again appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969. That year, Elektra released his second album, Running, Jumping, Standing Still, which featured piano player Willie Murphy and included many original compositions, among them "I Ain't Blue," which Bonnie Raitt later covered on her self-titled debut album. By the early '70s a lack of success prompted Koerner to retire to Copenhagen, Denmark, after recording the album Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes for Dave Ray's Sweet Jane Records label. (The LP was released in May 1972.) His European retirement lasted for a year or so, its ending formally marked by another Sweet Jane release, Some American Folk Songs Like They Used To, in October 1974. The album showed that he had moved more toward traditional folk music rather than the folk-blues with which he had been associated.

Koerner moved back to Minnesota in 1977 and maintained his career on a part-time basis while also working outside music. He returned to greater national visibility due to his association with Red House Records, which released his first album in more than 11 years, Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Been, in 1986 (it had been recorded in 1980), followed by Raised by Humans in March 1992 and StarGeezer in May 1996. Red House also reissued the Koerner, Ray & Glover albums Blues, Rags & Hollers, Lots More Blues, Rags & Hollers, and The Return of Koerner, Ray & Glover, as well as Koerner's Running, Jumping, Standing Still, on CD. In 1997, a new Koerner, Ray & Glover live album, One Foot in the Groove, was released on Tim/Kerr Records. Koerner underwent emergency triple bypass surgery in January 1998, but recovered and returned to performing. Lacking health insurance, he suffered astronomical medical bills, but a series of benefit concerts paid them off. In the early years of the new millennium, he continued to perform, both solo and as a member of Koerner, Ray & Glover.

John Koerner - Spider Blues

Year: 1965
Label: Elektra

Side A
- Good Luck Child *
- I Want To Be Your Partner
- Nice Legs
- Spider Blues *
- Corrina
- Shortnin' Bread
- Ramblin' And Tumblin'
- Delia Holmes

Side B
- Need A Woman
- I Want To Do Something
- Baby, Don't Come Back
- Hal C. Blake
- Things Ain't Right *
- Rent Party Rag

* with Tony Glover on mouth harp

note, a couple of tracks have some ripping errors, due to my computer's low-memory. I might try to do a re-rip at some point but just enjoy the bizarre time-changes for now...

vinyl, cleaned | mp3 >256kbps vbr | w/o cover

This album so far as I know has never been reissued, either in physical or digital form.

But you can find others On Muddy Sava Riverbank, and be sure to check out the man's website - he's still gigging!


muddy said...

Hi my friend, I'm looking for this album for decades, I don't know how to thank you.
I have to correct you, othre albums by Spider John Koerner you can find here (
Mostly posted by Zivoin and me.

Cheers my friend and thanks again.

The Irate Pirate said...

happy to give one back to you, after getting so much great stuff from your blog!