Minneapolis musician Spider John Koerner remembered for fresh approaches to traditional music

B&W image of "Spider" John Koerner sitting & playing acoustic guitar
Spider John Koerner performs at the "Fairytales" Willie Murphy Tribute at the Cabooze on Feb. 17, 2019.
Emmet Kowler

Updated: May 19, 10:58 p.m. | Posted: May 18, 11:45 a.m.

Spider John Koerner, an influential Minneapolis guitarist and singer with an international reputation, died Saturday. He was 85.

His son, Chris Kalmbach, reported the news on Facebook.

In an interview with MPR News, Kalmbach said Koerner was diagnosed with bile duct cancer in mid-March, but refused treatment.

“Being the guy he is, he only met life on his own terms. He decided that he wanted to leave this earth as natural as possible so he opted not to have any treatment at all and he made it like a month longer than they thought he would,” Kalmbach said. “And he kept his humor and his kindness throughout.” 

Early in his career, Koerner played in a duo with Bob Dylan in the coffee houses near the University of Minnesota. He then rose to prominence in the blues trio Koerner, Ray and Glover. With Tony “Little Sun” Glover, and Dave “Snaker” Ray, he toured the United States and wowed crowds at the Newport Folk Festival. They performed their own material and interpreted classic tunes. It was a mixture of respect for a great tradition, with a thirst for experimentation. Glover died in 2019. Ray died in 2002.

“I don’t like to leave anything the way it was, exactly,” Koerner told MPR News in 2017.

That fresh approach to songs, mostly a mixture of folk, blues and country, played dozens or hundreds of times was one of the many things musician Charlie Parr loved about Koerner.

“He’d never approach a song the same way twice,” Parr said. “It was a sense of real joy for him to find some new riff he’d been playing for decades and build a whole new vibe out of that little piece.”

“I was thrilled. I was completely inspired by that.”

Parr first saw Koerner play at the Viking Bar on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota. Parr was living in a rooming house at the time and eventually saw Koerner perform at Palmer’s and the Triangle Bar.

“He preferred to play in noisy bars where he was a part of the scene that was happening,” Parr said. “He wasn’t performing as much as he was a part of the party. John wanted to be part of the party, I think. And he was.”

In 1969, Koerner and another West Bank denizen, Willie Murphy, teamed up to release “Running, Jumping, Standing Still.” When they went into the studio the idea was to experiment, and experiment they did.

“A major part of the quality of that is due to Willie,” Koerner said. “He understands music way better than I do. But also, some of that rubbed off on me.” He realized he could not only use unconventional time signatures, but switch back and forth between them. “And if you made it interesting it all worked.”

The disc became a classic of the folk-rock amalgam of the time, drawing huge respect particularly from other musicians. It didn’t make them rich, though. Koerner continued performing in the folk and blues scene and produced eclectic recordings.

He also played with Bonnie Raitt and a host of others.

“I’ve had a lot of things which were impressive," Koerner reflected in the 2017 interview. “The Newport Folk Festivals, to me was really something. I’ve played in Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall in London, which, boy, how do you go up from that?”

In the hours after Koerner’s death, Kalmbach said the family was still coming to understand the impact their father and grandfather had, finding an “overwhelming” response to news of his death from other artists and fans. 

“He is an immensely humble person. I learned about the majority of his life from interviews on things like NPR and MPR,” Kalmbach said. “I didn’t know about his influence on Bob Dylan and that Bob Dylan wrote about him until I listened to … Prairie Home Companion. You know, he never really talked about that because it really didn’t matter to him, all the things. The fame and the other celebrities that he was around. It wasn’t something that he focused on.” 

“He was a very quiet, private person when he wasn’t performing,” Kalmbach added. “He liked the small experiences: the walks in the woods and the, you know, sitting on docks and having the casual conversation with one or two people sitting on his barstool at Palmer’s down on the West Bank, which is his favorite haunt there. So it’s just kind of a contrast between the person who was so big and had so many influences on people and then the knowing the other side of him.”

Koerner is survived by his children Chris Kalmbach, Matt Koerner, Mia Koerner and five grandchildren. 

Palmer’s Bar, which Koerner visited every day, earning him a placard with a reserved seat, according to a bartender, plans to hold an event in his honor soon. Other tribute concerts are also expected to be announced.

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