Friday, August 11, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #044: Spider John Koerner: Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Been

Pace Bob Zimmerman, the two greatest folkies I ever met out of Minnesota were Spider John Koerner and Dean Magraw—both guitarists, both virtuosi, both fantastically original roots stylists, and both of them more-or-less madmen—John sardonic and Dean manic. I got to know Dean’s playing (an absolutely superhuman amalgam of Norman Blake, McCoy Tyner, and Charlie Parker) at the old Guitar Workshop on Boylston Street, where he was part of a legendary faculty that also included Dharmonia, Larry “Guitar,” Mike Bierylo, Little Mikey Bevan, and Scott Samenfeld, and at the Idler just out of Harvard Square, a fantastic basement club whose back room preserved the hippest, funkiest, and least precious remnants of the Cambridge Folk Scare: low ceilings, skullbuster beams, sexy-but-indifferent waitresses, cheap beer, and a booking policy that would bring in only the hippest people and let them do whatever they wanted (more about the Idler here and in an upcoming “Music Houses” post).

But I got to know John’s playing at Bob Franke’s Saturday Night in Marblehead, another ‘60s remnant that he had founded around 1974 in a church parish hall in my own home town. I already knew the coffeehouse scene, because the Me and Thee Coffeehouse, also in my home town (and still running strong after 1000 performances) was a place I come to frequent. I didn’t like all the performers—even at the age of 13 I could tell there was some sanctimony in that community—but it was a place where a disaffected junior-high-schooler could hang out and wash dishes on a Friday night.

Bob’s SNM was similar, but different. It was attached to another Episcopal community, but of the “we’re middle-class liberals who supported Dr King” variety rather than the “we’re Anglophiles who’ll employ as many smells-and-bells as we can get away with” variety. So there was a stronger social-justice/building community element to SNM. And Franke, whatever else you say, as a musician himself had impeccable musical taste, so the roster of artists was overwhelmingly great (FE: at least a half-dozen of the artists on the “100 Greats” list are people I first heard there): Geoff Bartley, Stan Rogers, Martin Grosswendt, Greg Brown, Paul Geremia, Cormac McCarthy, Sally Rogers, Claudia Schmidt, they all played there, and a lot of them were brilliant—and inspirational. That might have been the first location in which I ever was able to ask myself if maybe a life as a musician was a real possibility.

My favorites at SNM were always the bluesmen, though: Geoff (upcoming “100 Greats”), Martin (upcoming), Geremia, and Spider John Koerner. John had come out of the U. Minn folk scene that began pretty much concurrently with the Harvard/Radcliffe/BU scene in New England, but that was, in some ways, more tight-knit, less intellectual, and, overall, tougher than the Boston/Cambridge scene (maybe it’s the cold, or the absence of trust funds and boarding schools in the Minnesotans’ backgrounds). There’s a fantastic recollection of John in Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney’s magisterial Baby Let Me Follow You Down, with Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music maybe the greatest non-academic book ever written about a local music community, and eminently worth the tracking-down. He showed up with Dave “Snaker” Ray (another guitarist) and Tony “Little Sun” Glover (a great Sonny Terry-style harp player) and they were bad motherfuckers. Dave looked like a blond surfer, Tony like a 90-pound greaser, and John looked like a basketball player. The cover of their debut LP, Blues Rags and Hollers captures both their look and their repertoire: they were more like a pre- than post-WWII blues band (the post-WWII Chicago sound would only hit the Bost/Camb folk scene with Butterfield’s Band at Newport ’65). It was astonishingly funky and mature music for three Minnesotans in their early 20s.

I never saw that trio play live: Tony and Dave went back to Minnesota, but John stayed around, and was still a presence on the Bost/Cambr scene by the mid-‘70s when Franke got SNM going. I was fortunate enough to see Koerner and his frequent partner in crime John “Mr Bones” Burrill at SNM, and then later, multiple times in the Idler’s backroom. John played a home-adapted 9-string guitar (almost-but-not-quite-a-12-string), the same one he’s played for at least 30 years, and got a huge sound out of his guitar, his stomping right foot, and Burrill’s bones. You could understand why they came to call John “Spider”—he’s a good 6’3”, skinny as a rail (especially since an emergency triple-bypass in ’98), and when he’s playing, his limbs kind of go every which way. There’s a good sample of John in the great 4-part documentary, written by another SNM alumnus, Elijah Wald, called Mississippi: River of Sound. They’re filmed in John’s local bar, and that holds true with how I remember him: you always got the sense with John that he was more comfortable in bars than in coffeehouses—and with the full range of behaviors that went down there (I always imagined he could have handled himself if somebody ever swung a punch, for example). Similarly with John’s involvement with the Minneapolis-based A Prairie Home Companion, which almost always played on radio during the SNM setup on Saturdays, and about which one of the regulars named above, arriving to play a solo gig, spat out “Yes, it’s such a precious little show with its precious little themes and its precious little skits and its precious little characters,” thereby capturing what I had intuitively disliked about the show (and still do). John was way too funky for Prairie Home, as he was probably too funky for SNM—but at least he had more fun with us: we didn’t mind his cussing, or the occasional swig of something in the rector’s office that served as the green room, and we laughed at his jokes (John’s the first place I heard the “what’s time to a pig?” joke that eventually showed up in Ciarán Carson’s great Irish-trad memoir Last Night’s Fun).

It was raunchier and more raucous at the Idler, though: John stomping out the rhythm and flailing at the 9-string (he’s got about the weirdest right-hand technique of any fingerpicker I’ve ever met) and Mr Bones, stooped with arthritis and fused cartilage, the two of them laying out a loose-jointed, behind-the-beat, splayed and irresistible groove.

One of the great things about John’s approach is that, over the 70s and 80s, he expanded his repertoire to include all kinds of old, non-blues folk tunes—as he himself said: “there’s a lot to those old songs; there’s a reason people still sing ‘em”—and it all came out sounding like him. That’s why I select this disc: because a sea chantey like Shenandoah, a cowboy song like Old Chisholm Trail, a pre-Civil War song like Cotton-Eyed Joe, or a New Orleans dirge like St. James Infirmary all come out with that same loopy, unmistakable, juke-joint groove.

Especially since his complete recovery from the bypass, he’s continued mining this wonderful vein: sometimes in more soloistic settings or with his Twin Cities homies (as on this disc), or with New Orleans players on Raised by Humans, or even extending to Stardust or ballads like The Golden Vanity on Stargeezer (another of his great strengths has been a succession of fantastic album titles).

This might be my favorite though—and Sail Away Ladies (from Nobody Knows…) might be my favorite piece of music ever recorded by a Minnesota folkie, unless it's Dean Magraw's version of Blind Willie McTell's Statesboro Blues, which buried Taj Mahal's and the Allman Brother's both.

Zimmerman's got my sympathy, though. Just as when Hendrix covered "All Along the Watchtower," there's attitude and then there's ATTITUDE. On Nobody Knows..., it's the real Big Dogs laying it down.


Anonymous blogger said...

I really enjoy the music education portion of this blog. I have bought 3 of the recordings you've discussed, have a few more, and hope to buy many of them--thank you for your devotion to music and your interesting commentary.

CJS said...

Glad you're finding them useful--mostly great music, huh?

Anonymous blogger said...

Yes! And your personal stories about the music are just as interesting.

Anonymous blogger said...

We clash a bit in the political realm, but who ever agrees on politics? No one in my family does, but such is the nature of the subject.

CJS said...

"We clash a bit in the political realm"

Yes, I know: my politics are pretty darned radical. Actually my experience has been that I have grown *more* radical as I grow older, as I become more knowledgeable about history, and as I continue in my personal spiritual practice. The gap between what life in America and around the world *could* be--versus what it *is*--is something I find more and more glaring, and troubling, the older I get.

"And your personal stories about the music are just as interesting."

Glad to hear that. I have actually started employing the personal reminiscences more regularly because another correspondent expressed that he thought they made the essays much stronger. An interesting challenge: to make the essays personal, w/out making them egocentric: a fine line.

Thanks for reading.