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In Memoriam

Minnesota folk music legend Spider John Koerner has died

Spider John Koerner
Spider John Koerner Nate Ryan | MPR

by Chris Strouth

May 18, 2024

We lost one of the pillars of Minnesota music. Spider John Koerner was a giant.

An early influence on Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, Koerner was a fixture on the West Bank of Minneapolis, especially at Palmer’s Bar. He died of cancer surrounded by family in the early hours of Saturday, May 18, at his Minneapolis home. He was 85. The news was confirmed this morning by his friend and lawyer, Doug Myren.

Looking back at Spider John Koerner’s life, the bullet points are ones they really ought to make a movie about. “Most of it was stumbling upon things,” Koerner told me earlier this year. “I never calculated anything.”

Koerner was born in Rochester, New York, and left as soon as he was able. He went on a strange adventure that landed him in Los Angeles, right smack dab in the height of the James Dean era and the birth of the young Hollywood cool. But before he was a troubadour, he was a Marine. In 1956 he enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study aeronautical engineering.

In an unintended twist, I conducted what might be the last interview with Koerner in January. I met him on an unseasonably warm day in the dead of winter at a spot he frequented, Palmer’s Bar. A more-detailed recounting of that day will be published soon.

If Palmer’s were a person, you might think it was one of Koerner’s greatest relationships, dating all the way back to when he was a student at the U of M. In those days, it was a place for a cheap drink and a post-hootenanny hang.

In those early years in Minneapolis, Spider John Koerner soon fell in with the folk community in Minneapolis. A friend loaned him a guitar and a Burl Ives songbook. “And that was it, everything changed,” he said. It was a scene he shared briefly with Bob Dylan, a mere three years his junior. Koerner, along with friends Dave "Snaker" Ray on guitar and vocals and Tony "Little Sun" Glover on harmonica, became markers on the road of that West Bank sound.

As Koerner, Ray & Glover, they made three of the more important folk revival albums on Elektra Records: 1963’s Blues, Rags and Hollers; Lots More Blues, Rags and Hollers in 1964; and The Return of Koerner, Ray & Glover in 1965. For a brief period, they were labelmates with the Doors and Love, and they played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. (It was at the same festival that Bob Dylan played the electric guitar heard around the world and changed the destiny of popular music.) Then in 1969, with Wilie Murphy, Koerner made Running, Jumping, Standing Still, a record that John Lennon name-checked in interviews.

Music History Spotlight: West Bank legends Spider John Koerner and Willie Murphy

Then Koerner traveled, quit music, lived in Copenhagen, and eventually came back to Minnesota and his stool at Palmer’s. He became a bartender there and came within a hair's breadth of owning the place. When he restarted playing music, he became one of the finest traditional players in the world. In 2010, the world got to hear some special recordings from his earlier eras. In 2017, he formally announced he was retiring.

MPR News: Music legend Spider John Koerner contemplates his legacy

Over that last act of his life, he couldn't play, and slowly gave away his guitars. One lives with fellow Minnesota folk songwriter Charlie Parr, and one now lives forever in a case at Palmer’s just in view of Spider John’s usual spot at the bar.

When sharing the news of Koerner’s passing, Doug Myren said, “He's gone now, passed away, and the world is a lesser place.” He's right, but the world has been a much better place for the time he spent in it.

Thank you, Spider John, and bon route.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.