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
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
I never saw that trio play live: Tony and Dave went back to
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
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.