John Koerner, Bluesman Who Inspired a Young Bob Dylan, Dies at 85


Spider John Koerner, a blues and folk singer whose work drew praise from the Doors and the Beatles (if not the general public) and who, in 1960, taught his friend Bobby Zimmerman about traditional American music, then watched as the young man metamorphosed into Bob Dylan, died on Saturday at his home in Minneapolis. He was 85.

The cause was cancer, his son Chris Kalmbach said.

On a self-made seven-string guitar and also on a 12-string — like his idol, Lead Belly — Mr. Koerner (pronounced KER-ner) yowled and foot-stomped his way through songs about gold miners and frogs who went a-courtin’. He played the bars and coffeehouses of the nation’s university towns, and he performed both standards and his own original songs, which came out, as one critic put it, “pre-antiquated.”

Musically, he was best known as a member of Koerner, Ray & Glover, along with Dave “Snaker” Ray, another guitarist and vocalist, and Tony “Little Sun” Glover, who played harmonica. Their debut album, “Blues, Rags & Hollers,” released in 1963, was an early attempt by young middle-class white men to imitate Black blues musicians whose hard-to-find recordings they had obsessively collected.

“Demolishing the puny vocalizations of ‘folk’ trios like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Whatsit, Koerner and company showed how it should be done,” David Bowie wrote in a 2003 article in Vanity Fair in which he included “Blues, Rags & Hollers” on a list of his 25 favorite albums.

The Doors decided to sign with Elektra Records in part because it had issued that album. The founder and chief executive of Elektra, Jac Holzman, often said the Beatles authorized him to issue an album of baroque interpretations of their work after John Lennon told him, “Anyone who records Koerner, Ray & Glover is OK with me.”

Mr. Koerner’s other Elektra releases included “Running, Jumping, Standing Still” (1969), which he recorded with the pianist Willie Murphy. In 1997, The International Herald Tribune called it “one of the most important early folk-rock records”; in 2016, Billboard wrote that it was “a slab of ragtime psychedelia and a high-water mark of the artistic freedom that characterized the time.”

For all that, Mr. Koerner entered the annals of history less for his own music than for his role in the musical development of someone else.

In 1959, Bobby Zimmerman moved from Hibbing, the little city in Minnesota’s northern reaches where he had grown up, to Minneapolis. As an incoming freshman at the University of Minnesota, his new home was Dinkytown, the neighborhood around the university and a provincial capital of America’s counterculture. His new neighbors were beatniks, tweedy anarchists and assorted other young people on holiday from families and careers. It was hip to quote Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce.

In this milieu, rock ’n’ roll was pop — worse, it was square. Authenticity lay in the roots of American music, then being cataloged for the first time by folklorists like Alan Lomax and Chris Strachwitz. Flannel-wearing hipsters blared newly discovered classics on their harmonicas at places like the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a narrow room with uncomfortable stools and a tiny stage.

“The first guy I met in Minneapolis like me was sitting around in there,” Mr. Dylan wrote in his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One” (2004). That guy was John Koerner.

The two of them knew some of the same standards, like “Wabash Cannonball,” but Mr. Koerner was older — he had entered the University of Minnesota in 1956 — and he had been studying folk music longer. He owned old 78s of Delta blues and spirituals, and he knew about mythical figures like Robert Johnson.

“Authentic folk records were as scarce as hens’ teeth,” Mr. Dylan wrote. “Koerner and some others had them, but the group was very small.”

He was drawn to Mr. Koerner in part for the “look of perpetual amusement on his face,” Mr. Dylan wrote. “When he spoke he was soft-spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter.”

The two young men lived together briefly and began performing as a duo, at the Ten O’Clock Scholar and elsewhere. Bobby Zimmerman began using the surname Dylan and, like Mr. Koerner, dropped out of college. Singing harmony with Mr. Koerner, he learned new material.

“I was beginning to feel like a character from within these songs, even beginning to think like one,” Mr. Dylan wrote.

Mr. Koerner got glimpses of his friend’s artistic ambition. Dave Matheny, another local folky, once took a break during a concert. Mr. Dylan whipped out his guitar and harmonica and began playing from the audience. From the stage, Mr. Matheny begged him to stop. Mr. Dylan refused — and held the spellbound attention of the audience for about an hour, literally stealing the show.

“Dylan wanted an audience and just took it away from Dave,” Mr. Koerner was quoted as saying in Bob Spitz’s biography, “Dylan” (1991). “That was his way in the early days; he took what he wanted.”

Back then, Mr. Dylan’s voice was soft and sweet. “He always knew that you’d fall in love with that shyness,” Mr. Koerner told Mr. Spitz, “yet he knew how to rattle people’s cages.”

Mr. Dylan experienced an “epiphany,” he wrote, when he heard the music of Woody Guthrie and read Guthrie’s memoir, “Bound for Glory.” He soon hitchhiked east to find Guthrie and make a name for himself in Greenwich Village, the national center of the folk revival.

Mr. Koerner saw him again in 1965, when Koerner, Ray & Glover were on the bill at the same Newport Folk Festival at which Mr. Dylan infamously “went electric.” At the same time, the once-obscure Black blues musicians Mr. Koerner and others had revered were touring and gaining more widespread fame.

“It made us a little bit obsolete,” Tony Glover told The Star Tribune in 2012.

A lapsed aeronautical engineering student, Mr. Koerner briefly retired from music in the 1970s and spent his time tinkering with inventions and building telescopes.

“I wouldn’t want the kind of success that Bob Dylan has,” he told The Star Tribune in 2005. “He’s got people picking through his garbage.”

John Allan Koerner was born on Aug. 31, 1938, in Rochester, N.Y. His father, Allan, was an executive at Kodak, and his mother, Marion (Fenske) Koerner, managed the home.

John got the nickname Spider when he climbed around the bottom of a bridge one night while out with friends, who noticed his long-limbed physique.

His marriages to Jeanie Buranen, Lisbet Gerlach Madsen and Laura Cavanaugh ended in divorce. His son Chris Kalmbach was mainly raised by his mother, Bonnie Kalmbach, and uses her surname. In addition to Mr. Kalmbach, Mr. Koerner is survived by a son, Matt Koerner, from his first marriage; a daughter, Mia Koerner, from his second marriage; and five grandchildren.

In 2011, The Boston Globe reported that Mr. Koerner “finally looks like he’s always sounded”: “a grizzled sage who has lived the hard times he sings about.” He played in bars “where you’ve got to punch it out or people will go to sleep on you,” he told The Globe. In 2012, he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in decades. Now he was the geezer with a storied but forgotten career who had been dug up for folk fans.

He was often asked about his youthful friendship with Mr. Dylan.

“People have told me I influenced Dylan,” he told Billboard in 2016. “I wouldn’t put it that way. What’s the quote? ‘A great artist doesn’t copy … they steal.’ You take something and make it your own and it’s fair enough.”



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