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A final hang with Spider John Koerner, Minneapolis' storied folk music explorer

Spider John Koerner, photographed in northeast Minneapolis on Feb. 16, 2024.
Spider John Koerner, photographed in northeast Minneapolis on Feb. 16, 2024.Shelly Mosman for MPR

by Chris Strouth

May 23, 2024

Spider John Koerner has a stool. It is the same stool, or at least the location of the same stool, that he has visited for more than half a century.

When Koerner and I meet on an unseasonably warm day in the dead of winter, he sits at this stool. It’s at a spot he frequents, Palmer’s, the last working man's bar on the West Bank of Minneapolis. If you're unfamiliar with the locale, it too is one of the last things standing from a bygone era. You could’ve called it Koerner’s other home, but it was even more than that. Really, it was a partnership the same way Ray, Glover, and Murphy were his partners over the years.

Located near the center of the bar, Koerner’s seat isn’t a throne, but just a tattered stool that joins the camouflage of the rest of the furniture once its most famous occupant gets up. His arrival is like clockwork, his exit just as regular. It’s just like his order: a pint of Hamm’s and a shot of blackberry brandy.

In an unintended twist, this is probably Koerner’s last interview. We meet on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. We see each other briefly when he sits for some photos on Friday, Feb. 16. In the early hours of Saturday, May 18, he passes away at the age of 85 at home.

On this winter day, the bar opens early. “Brooke,” he addresses the bartender gently. “Yes?” she replies. “Can you keep the clanking down?” The soundtrack of two generations of guitar heroes beyond his own can stay, but they’re quieter. Seated a chair down to Koerner’s right is our mutual friend: lawyer, ballroom owner, and music archivist Doug Myren. (Someday I’ll get around to talking about him more in these pixels, but that ain’t today.)

Koerner is a legend, but if you are under 35, you probably have never encountered him. Minnesota, as a whole, is not great at legend. Well, at least the living kind. We only know what to do when they are up on the high shelf — just out of reach, like the good liquor and the fine china. Or when they leave for another place and we can worship them, since their value does not exist until someone from elsewhere gives it the nod.

Legend is a tough gig. It gets used to describe semi-memorable films, somewhat beloved cartoon franchises from a previous century, or your friend who was exceptional at beer pong. But also, legends are stories passed down from generation to generation. In their retellings, the stories grow so big that they warp any sense of proportion, like the gravitational waves of a black hole. Words like “legend” or “genius” take on extra weight when you see them in print, or more realistically, pixels. Legend comes with expectations, and those expectations, more often than not, come along with a free side of disappointments.

The bullet points of Spider John Koerner’s life, one they really oughta make a movie about: He was a Marine, and then a troubadour. He was an early influence on Bob Dylan during his brief time in Minneapolis. 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. For a brief period, they were labelmates with the likes of the Doors and Love, and they played 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 the late ’60s, with Willie Murphy, Koerner made Running, Jumping, Standing Still, a record that John Lennon name-checked in interviews. Like I said: legend.

Coco Chanel said “Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30. But at 50 you get the face you deserve.” At 85, Spider John Koerner has the face of a man who sees past the artifice of all that, he just simply is. He is in his trademark cap and flannel shirt of nondescript lineage. It could have been acquired during his time in Holland, or out of a bin at a Walmart. He resembles any other fellow you might see at the pub complaining about the mediocrity of his sports team of choice. Yet here he is the person that probably best symbolizes that sort of golden era of counterculture in the state. He’s a landmark that easily blends in. There’s that almost mantra-like saying of late: ”If you know, you know.” It's a nice sort of allusion to an insider’s club. But if someone doesn't know, then you’d best be telling them, lest the story disintegrates like 1920s film stock.

He doesn’t carry any of the tropes of the ghosts of countercultures past. There’s nothing about him that says he drank with Jim Morrison in big neon letters — in part because he is drinking here with you. It's hard to visualize how the “spider” moniker applies now, but it still sticks forever. That’s another thing they don't tell you about legends. They become so ubiquitous that they’re part of the navigational landscape. We don’t even realize their value until we’re explaining them to people from outside the neighborhood.

As we talk, the stories start coming out — sometimes sideways, or in the middle of the action. We talk about his time collaborating with Murphy, and it isn’t the last time he’ll speak humbly about his own contributions. “It seems strange to me that [Willie] even decided to do it,” Koerner says. “He's a real musician, you know, as opposed to a folk musician. For me, [it was] easily the most productive time I've ever had with making songs. The Beatles were around and he started realizing you could do anything you want.”

John is a low talker with a voice that bears the marks of decades of blues, rags, and hollers. It’s almost comforting to hear him sound so disconnected when responding to workaday music business talk mentions of streams, licensing, and the number of films that have used his music including, much to his surprise, a straight-to-Skinemax “adult” film with a truly hideous pun for a title.

After we establish that this interview won’t require radio-quality fidelity, he tells the bartender Brooke, “Okay, I think it’s okay to clink.” Even in a bar bereft of customers, hearing him can be a chore. I’m concentrating on catching the nuance of every syllable he utters. (Even when I’m playing back the recordings later, certain phrases seem like they were spoken on transparent vellum.) It must be, in a way, like him once listening to old blues field recordings from the Smithsonian Folkways collection, trying to find the nuance in between the crackle and hiss.

If Palmer’s were a person, you might think it was one of Koerner’s greatest relationships, from the time he was a student at the University of Minnesota. It was a place for a cheap drink, a post-hootenanny hang. The bar has been a watering hole to businessmen, gangsters, raconteurs, restaurateurs, prostitutes, and politicians. It survived ragtime, the Jazz Age, Prohibition, the Great Depression, two world wars, a Korean one, and so much more. It's easy to lose count. Palmer’s really hit the groove in the late ’50s as the Beatniks and the poets moved into the neighborhood. It still stands as the neighborhood has changed again to a thriving Muslim community. Palmer’s stands as a thing out of time — just as Koerner sits here, a man nearly out of time.

Koerner was born in Rochester, New York, and left about as soon as he was able to. 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. So, of course, he did what any fledgling musician would do and joined the Marines.

As he puts it, “I was one of the most naive people you can imagine.” A Marine recruiter talked him into four years. He did the “Hollywood Marine” boot camp and then was dispatched for more training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. During his first time off, he was riding back to the city with a couple of Marines in a friend’s car.

“We had a car accident which killed one of the guys and put me in a hospital for a while,” he says. “And the result of that eventually was, I got out. When I look back at it, I think, ‘Jesus, I certainly wouldn't have been any Spider John, if it hadn't happened, you know?’ And it was very sad about the guy who was killed. He was just absolutely wonderful and had a career ahead of him in the Marines. Everybody loved the guy. And one guy eventually came up to me and said, ‘I wish it was you instead of him that got it.’”

“But you know, if I think about it, I understand it completely,” he continues. “And I don't wish my own demise, but I would agree with it.” That statement was a revelation, a scary and sad one. He had talked about the accident before, but not about the details — a small hint about a man who rarely showed his full hand of cards.

Spider John Koerner sits for a photo
Spider John Koerner, photographed in northeast Minneapolis on Feb. 16, 2024.
Shelly Mosman for MPR

If this were a movie, Koerner would travel highways and byways, maybe bumping into some wise hobo that sends him on the path. In reality, he bounced around a bit: San Francisco, back to his parents, and then it was to go to the University of Minnesota to study aeronautical engineering. And then, the infamous hotbed of the folk movement, The 10 O’Clock Scholar in Dinkytown, and ultimately, Dave Ray. The real spark was in a dorm, where he had his “a-ha” moment. A classmate invited him to his room to hear some folk music.

“He played and sang himself,” Koerner says. “And he loaned me a guitar and a Burl Ives songbook and that was it, everything changed.” After a swig of beer, he continues, “I had picked up a song and then I realized I could work up some other ones. And, you know, there was, at the time, a group of people who were under folk music that used to get together every month. And this guy who got me started, he was part of that, too. So I used to go to those things. And I could play a tune or tunes.” I ask if they really called them hootenannys in those days. They did not.

Spider John found a community, one he shared with Bob Dylan, a mere three years his junior. The scene united him with Dave Ray and Tony Glover, and a young Bonnie Raitt. “Most of it was stumbling upon things, you know, actually. I never calculated anything. For starters, and things just one after the other,” Koerner says. “Anybody who listened to me will tell you that I don't sound like anybody else. And it's because it's the way it happened. I didn't try to be like anybody else.I just kind of stumbled along, you know?”

That quote encompasses a lot of what Spider John was, his life's tale seems more like a folk tale. But most lives get weirder, bigger, more colorful the further away we are from them, and their tales are retold by strangers.

Koerner’s story as a musician has been told a lot over the years and recounted in starry-eyed wonder. “You could kind of wonder whether you're gonna get famous or not,” he says. “And what that would be like, but that was just free thoughts.” One tale he dusts off for our time together is his final personal encounter with Bob Dylan. It says as much about Spider John as a funny cat to hang with as it does for his musicianship.

The story takes place on New Year's Eve, possibly at the end of the 1980s, at Dylan’s farmstead west of the Twin Cities. Koerner, Tony Glover, and a handful of others were invited out. “I remember at one point, we were all sitting around in the circle and doing songs,” says Koerner. “It got to me. I decided I was gonna do an a cappella number. And I did ‘Days of ’49,’ which is traditional. And I said [Dylan] had recorded this, he said “I don't think so” — which he has. And then, when I was interviewed in the paper about that, I said ‘Yeah, I decided that I’d do an a cappella one so he couldn't steal any of my licks.’ I hope if he read that he got the joke.” Everyone at Palmer’s within earshot bursts out laughing.

In all politeness, the music historians may have missed the best bits. He was best known as a musician, but in truth, Spider John Koerner was an explorer. Not necessarily in the Indiana Jones sense, rather his last crusade was in the rediscovery of our own history.

Today, anyone with a data connection can stream the music of blues legend Robert Johnson that was preserved in acetate nearly a century ago. In the late 1950s, when Koerner was discovering folk and blues, you had to track down on a 78, or go to a friend who had heard the song and then plays it for you — like a game of musical telephone. The songs have a thousand geographical variants, some as simple as remembering the words wrong, until the mistake becomes the words we know and the original sounds wrong.

Folk music is a living history, a Shona stone sculpture that captures moments of original three chords and a dream sound, the tuning of the guitar, and the slide on the string. It tells us its truth and sometimes relates to us in a way the original player could never have imagined. Situations change, but core emotions? Not so much. The sheer amount of dedication to discovery and willingness to explore are central to the magical era of Koerner’s artistic emergence. He and others dug up the past and, in turn, reshaped the future.

No one’s life is a simple story. Suffice it to say that in that post-heyday and in no particular order: Spider John Koerner traveled, quit music, lived in Copenhagen, worked in a porcelain factory painting little figurines, and came back to Minnesota and his stool at Palmer’s. He almost bought the bar once. He was a bartender, though — by his own account — not a terribly good one. He worked jobs, did not work jobs, and restarted playing music, eventually becoming one of the finest traditional players in the world. He had three marriages, three children, and, eventually, grandchildren.

Over that last act of his life, Koerner couldn't play, and slowly gave away his guitars. “I gave up completely about three or four years ago,” he says. “My hands stopped working forever. And shortly after, I quit. I realized it was time and like I say, ‘I don't have no interest in music anymore.’ Really.” One of his guitars lives with one of his Minnesota folk acolytes Charlie Parr now — Koerner wouldn’t accept a dime as payment for it — and one now lives forever in a case at Palmer’s just in view of Spider John’s spot.

What surprises me most in our conversation of surprises is when he looks at me and says “What I really want to do is talk about boats and telescopes.” After all, “we're the land of 10,000 Lakes, which probably means about 100,000 boats.” He has built quite a few boats — traditional small, flat-bottom “jon” boats. They’re the kind not built for speed or show, sort of an old-time utility boat. They let you travel in the shallows and are lightweight and easy to transport. It was a trip on a boat in Denmark that unlocked another life passion — hinted at overtly in the title of his 1996 album, Stargeezer.

“I had this revelation, which is kind of ridiculous, because it's kind of just quite obvious,” he says. “I realized stars didn't stop at the horizon. They went below that and, of course, everywhere.” He became obsessed with building telescopes, and not small ones. These complicated systems of optics eventually traveled with him to Mexico and Africa so he could see into different sections of deep space, and inspire the same fascination in others.

These seemingly disconnected hobbies do have a common thread. Just like his music, these passions are about exploration, about going somewhere new, but as an observer's journey into the past. When we think of telescopes, it's usually about making faraway things look close. While they do make the heavens more accessible, they also let us see the past, the light that takes millions, or billions, of years to get to us. They ultimately allow us to know where we are from.

Koerner did that his whole career. He explored, he interpreted, and made history alive, while never making it feel historical. “It’s been a hell of a ride,” he says, near the end of our meeting. “Been very interesting. I’ve had three inspirations, and I’m waiting for another one. My antennas are out all the time.”

A few weeks later, I see Spider John again for the final time. We’re in photographer Shelly Mosman’s studio in a converted warehouse in northeast Minneapolis. This is already a different guy. I am not sure he recognizes me, and his voice is often lost in the cavernous environs.

The photos are quick. Mosman does in a millisecond that which an endless amount of words could never capture. Our lives and histories are all a bit like that: flashes of light in the abyss of the infinite, with echoes that cascade into the next. Spider John Koerner’s light might not be the brightest or the flashiest, but still it cascades, informs, and lights the way for generations to come.

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