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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, September 01, 2008


. . . Conway Twitty would have been 75 today. I remember failing to get to see him on Merseyside in 1960/61, on a bill with Freddie Cannon and Jimmy Jones. I saw the poster for it as I was cycling home from school. It looked magic. Twitty's 'It's Only Make Believe' is surely one of the seminal hit records of its era - and I last heard it performed at a fete de musique in one of the tiniest villages around here this June: 2008. Performed well, too.

And meanwhile too, yesterday was the 70th birthday of Spider John Koerner. I last saw him perform (first and last, actually), and talked to him briefly, at the Bob Dylan Symposium in Minneapolis-St Paul 18 months ago. I was able to show him the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia - which I hope gives some indication of his importance as an early influence on Dylan - and I was able to get him to autograph the page in my own working copy of the book.

That entry has been updated for the paperback, and now runs like this:

Koerner, Spider John [1938 - ]
John A. Koerner was born on August 31, 1938 in Rochester, New York, where he grew up (as it happens, the town the great SON HOUSE was living in when ‘rediscovered’). Koerner gained a glider pilot’s license at age 15, joined the marines (briefly) and enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Minnesota in 1956. By the time Bob Dylan met him in Dinkytown, he was living in Minneapolis with a young wife, in an apartment stocked with folk music records.

Dylan writes about Koerner the musician in some detail in Chronicles Volume One, and says of the person that he ‘was tall and thin with a look of perpetual amusement on his face. We hit it off right away.’
Dylan says he was ‘The first guy I met in Minneapolis like me’, that they met in the 10 O’Clock Scholar coffee-house, that Koerner was an acoustic guitarist and an exciting singer, that they already knew a few of the same songs and that they sat around together learning more. It was Koerner who first played him the NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS, and many other key records, including a compilation called Foc’sle Songs and Shanties (Dylan slightly mistitles this as Foc’sle Songs and Sea Shanties), and another, an Elektra sampler album, which he says first introduced him to the voices of DAVE VAN RONK and Peggy Seeger, and included ALAN LOMAX (one of those folklorists who always fancied himself a bit of a performer) singing ‘Doney Gal’ - which, as Dylan mentions, he added to his repertoire. (It’s one of the songs on the tape made at Karen Wallace’s apartment in St.Paul in May 1960.) And in the interview given to CAMERON CROWE for Biograph in 1985, Dylan specified other songs he’d learned from Koerner: ‘He knew more songs than I did. “Whoa Boys Can’t Ya Line ’M”, “John Hardy”, “Golden Vanity”, I learned all those from him. We sounded great; not unlike THE DELMORE BROTHERS.’
Koerner and Dylan hung around together, going off to see performers who were passing through town and to seek out rumored rare records. And while each continued to perform by himself, the two of them began to perform together as well - ‘playing and singing a lot together as a duo’, as Dylan reports. They played ‘at house parties, in the coffee-houses, street singing’, and after Dylan plunged into his WOODY GUTHRIE phase, Dylan and Koerner would play Guthrie together too. Sometimes Dave Glover (aka TONY GLOVER) would play harmonica with them too.
At some point after Dylan left for New York City, Koerner started playing ‘professionally’ with Tony Glover and DAVE RAY. Koerner, Ray and Glover - that was the name of their outfit - made many albums, starting with Blues, Rags & Hollers, issued first on the small Audiophile label in June 1963 but picked up by Elektra, who signed them, bought the rights, reissued the LP that November (with four tracks missing) and then several further albums.

John Koerner was also one of the artists on the 1964 compilation album The Blues Project, on which Bob Dylan appeared on Side 2, Track 4 of the original LP, billed as Bob Landy, playing a piano duet with ERIC VON SCHMIDT behind GEOFF MULDAUR on the latter’s song ‘Downtown Blues’. Koerner was featured artist on the previous track, performing BIG BILL BROONZY’s ‘Southbound Train’, and on Side 1 of the album he performs ‘My Little Woman’. Soon after this compilation LP was issued, Koerner Ray & Glover were fellow-performers at the 1964 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL.

Koerner continued to record after the group split up, and made albums in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, while continuing to perform and write from his Minneapolis base. One of the albums he made in the mid-1960s, with Glover as his harmonica-player, received a memorably savage review from Albert McCarthy, the stalwart critic of Jazz Monthly: ‘Each country has its own way of finding room for the talentless, in Britain the traditional escape-route for many years being the church or the army. It appears that the outlet in the US…is for them to become folk singers…. This is, without any doubt, one of the worst records I have had to review for many a long day…a passably competent guitarist, a poor harmonica player and a quite dreadful singer…. the butchery of inoffensive blues verses is spread out remarkably evenly throughout…this grotesque blues kitsch.’

Koerner ventured into film-making in the 1970s, and developed his hobby of building and rebuilding telescopes. He reunited with Ray and Glover in 1996 for One Foot in The Groove, the trio’s first recording together in 30 years. Dylan gave it this soundbite: ‘Exactly like you’d think it would be, stunning. Koerner, Ray and Glover haven’t lost a step. Every time they play the lights shine.’

In 1998 Koerner had, and fully recovered from, triple by-pass heart surgery. By 2005 he was back playing a long string of summer dates, from June’s Minnesota Folk Festival onwards, and in March 2007 performed with Glover at the Minneapolis Bob Dylan Symposium at the University of Minnesota.

[John Koerner: ‘My Little Woman’ & ‘Southbound Train’, nia, 1964, The Blues Project, Elektra EKL 264, NY, Jun 1964; Spider Blues, nia, Elektra EKL-290 (mono) / EKS-7290, NY, 1965. Koerner Ray & Glover: Blues Rags and Hollers, Audiophile AP-78, 1963; One Foot In The Groove, Tim/Kerr T/K 96CD137, US, 1996. Albert McCarthy, Jazz Monthly, UK, Jul 1965. Bob Dylan: Chronicles Volume One, 2004, pp.237-239, 241.]


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