Remembering Local Folk Hero, “Spider” John Koerner

The placard near the stool of his favorite Minneapolis haunt, Palmer’s Bar, remains and reads, “This place reserved for Spider John Koerner. Ten A.M. Till Noon.” Though the man may be gone, the indelible mark he left on the Dinkytown area of Minneapolis, helping to put the blues and folk scene happening there on the map worldwide, remains, and not just from “ten A.M. till noon.” It remains in the places and people he touched, and changed, with his music and, as in the cases of Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, his mentorship and encouragement.

Twin Cities guitar hero and fixture of the Minneapolis music scene for decades, “Spider” John Koerner, passed away on May 18, 2024. He was 85. Known as one-third of the 1960s acoustic country blues trio, Koerner, Ray & Glover, he developed quite a following around the coffeehouse circuit of Dinkytown, Minneapolis for his dexterous, fingerstyle guitar playing and his ability to bring people in to his songs, which were somehow both deeply personal and universal. He was a unique figure–his lanky frame and limbs earning him the nickname “Spider”–steeped in the traditions of American music (blues, folk, jazz, bluegrass), but all the while remaining so unwaveringly local. The man was Minneapolis through and through–to me, one of his most enduring qualities.

He continued putting out records under his own name all the way through the 2010s, with a shortlist of the “who’s who” of Twin Cities musicians to call on and record with–even including the late, great pianist and Jazz88 alum, Butch Thompson. This is how I came to know “Spider” John’s music. Admittedly, I came to his music later in life, which I’m actually thankful for. My first time hearing his voice is still relatively fresh in my mind and there was no way I wasn’t going to be hooked. His music was so inviting, accessible, and though it could deal in heavier subject matter, was more often than not lighthearted and fun. Like a good ol’ jam session with friends.

Some time ago, I posted an article here, stating my case for why, I feel, it makes sense to have an entire block of Saturday programming on a jazz radio station devoted to bluegrass. That case being that the two forms are more alike than they are different. Koerner straddled this line as good as anyone, and could convincingly lay down trad. tunes “Froggie Went a-Courtin'” and “The Old Chisholm Trail” alongside standards like “St. James Infirmary” and Leadbelly’s “Irene.” On the same record.

He’s always kind of been seen as an “elder statesman” in the Minneapolis music scene, and much has been written on the fateful impact he had on artists who would become mega-stars. What’s so admiring to me is that, while I’m sure he could’ve achieved a similar status, he seemed more interested in entrenching himself, almost as though returning the favor, to the scene that got him into music, gave him his start, and altered the trajectory of his life and the lives of those who knew him. He gave his gifts to the world, but they were always uniquely Minneapolis. For that, I say thanks and rest easy, Spider. – Andrew Diemand

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