As folk music slowly made its presence known in the musical dialog of America in the mid-to-late ‘50s, groups like the Kingston Trio, the Highwaymen, the New Christy Minstrels, Peter, Paul and Mary and others delivered a smoothly palatable version of commercial folk music. Crisp harmonies, pin striped shirts, and relatively tame repertoires lent folk music an air of relaxed accessibility that harbored no more threat than a good-natured hootenanny. However, beneath the surface of this made-for-television vehicle there thrived another group of musical purveyors whose output was far less commercially approachable.
Not nearly as well known, their names filled the marquees of smoky, beatnik
clubs and coffeehouses in Boston, Cambridge, Greenwich Village, the Midwest,
and San Francisco, all the while singing songs drawn from Southern plantations,
gamblers, cowboys and an enormous vault of public domain songs in addition
to their own politically-charged missives. Among them was a then-young and
unknown Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, U. Utah Phillips,
and a tall, lanky man known as “Spider” John Koerner. Although Koerner’s
contribution remains large, drawing praises from the likes of John Lennon,
Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Ray Davies, his humble beginnings belie his
With every intention of pursuing a solid, middle-class career, John Koerner
left his home in Rochester, N.Y. for the University of Minnesota. There,
while studying engineering he became entranced with the guitar, folk and
the blues—country blues, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon
Jefferson and a slew of other blues legends whose work was gradually appearing
in local record stores. Within a few short months, Koerner learned guitar,
taught himself some blues and began performing in coffeehouses.
“It all happened in one day,” recalls the reserved 56 year-old musician
during a recent conversation. “I had this friend who asked me to his dorm
room to listen to some folk music and he had a guitar; well,” he continues,
rambling, “I borrowed that guitar and somehow it interested me because within
a few weeks I was playing songs and within half a year I was performing.
So school was essentially the beginning of one thing,” he laughs, dryly,
“And the end of another.”
Shortly after discovering the guitar he connected with Dave Ray and Tony
Glover and went on to form one of the most influential trios of the early
folk movement. Koerner, Ray, and Glover steered a generation of young folkies
towards the blues-based music of the South by delivering offbeat renditions
of classic American songs.
The majority of Spider John’s best music revels as excitingly glib interpretations
of songs that populate the songbooks and annals of the public domain. Mountain
songs, cowboy songs, work, field, and blues songs—each chosen for its uniquely
telling quality of the human condition. “I like songs that have an interesting
quality about them,” he offers. “I might find 20 or 30 songs while looking
in an old songbook somewhere and I’ll only find one that really does something
for me. I like something that has a little edge to it. These are songs
that have survived for many years because of their timeless qualities,” he
concludes, adding, “We have not really changed all that much.”
To Koerner, these time-transcending aspects of song are best illustrated
with the blues. “It [the blues] was all very new to me at the time,” recalls
Koerner. “But I remember being struck by the poetry which I thought was
quite good. Some of the better songs had such a way of turning a phrase
with irony and double entendre and the beauty of it was quite shocking.
The other part is that the blues is quite sensuous music, almost hypnotic
Drawing from these old blues and folk songs, Koerner firmly established
himself as a interpreter of a whole genre of music that had previously received
little exposure on college campuses in the ‘60s. Reinventing songs with
the help of his deft guitar style, his renditions bring a warm familiarity
to many classics, while incorporating elements of the blues, folk and country.
“Froggy Went A Courtin’,” “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “Shenandoah,” “The Water
Is Wide,” “Titanic,” and Leadbelly’s “Irene,” come alive with crisply angular,
jumping guitar lines, bursts of harmonica, accompanied by the steady beat
of a heavy shoe, and the tinkling percussion of bones provided by his then-performing
partner, Mr. Bones. A strikingly original performer, Spider sees his role
in less charitable terms.
“To have been there then and by virtue of some wild luck,” he modestly
admits, “It was very easy to get going. And if you were reasonably good
you could get something going pretty easily.” As a result, his legacy loomed
large throughout the folk boom of the ‘60s, climaxing in the 1969 release
of one of the era’s classic albums titled, Running, Jumping, Standing Still.
Recently re-released, Running still stands as one of the best representations
of “white” blues available.
“The blues that interested me came out of a time and situation that there
was no way I could partake; only mimic.” explains Koerner, whose moniker,
“Spider” was chosen to imitate the blues musicians he admired (that, and
his spindly long arms, legs and fingers). “Not only that, but what created
the blues is gone and there is very little representation left of what gave
birth to the blues. These songs all came out of the ‘20s and ‘30s when plantations
and cotton picking were still prevalent. So in one way the blues really
rose from a set of circumstances that you can’t re-create today, especially
coming from a white middle class background,” he pauses laughing. “But in
another sense the blues represent something that everybody has—soul.”