Singing ‘from the gut’

A series of reissues brings cult folk hero Spider John Koerner into the spotlight

“I learned to play in bars where you’ve got to punch it out or people will go to sleep on you or just drink and talk,’’ says Koerner. “I learned to play in bars where you’ve got to punch it out or people will go to sleep on you or just drink and talk,’’ says Koerner. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / May 27, 2011

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Three years later, it’s still hard to forget a particular performance Spider John Koerner gave around here. Pushing 70 years old, Koerner was part of a long lineup of folk and blues musicians celebrating Club Passim’s 50th anniversary. The show was billed as a hootenanny, but it didn’t feel like one until Koerner and his band hit the stage. Eyes closed, he was a sight: right leg wagging like a hound dog trying to scratch an itch, with a howl to match.

To someone witnessing Koerner live for the first time, you suddenly understood the magic of a man whose praises have been sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and John Lennon.

Koerner is as much of an old-timer as you could imagine, and yet interest in his music has spiked somewhat in the past few years. Some of his out-of-print albums were recently reissued on Nero’s Neptune, a small label based in Minneapolis, and Koerner maintains an active touring schedule (including stops at the Plough & Stars in Cambridge tomorrow night and then Sally O’Brien’s in Somerville on Tuesday).

Jan Cornish, a close friend who has been booking many of Koerner’s shows since the 1980s, says she noticed his audiences started skewing younger around the time Dylan mentioned Koerner in his 2006 memoir. In “Chronicles,’’ Dylan recalls finding a kindred spirit in Koerner when they were both students at the University of Minnesota. “When he spoke he was soft spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter,’’ Dylan wrote. “Koerner was an exciting singer, and we began playing a lot together.’’

Given his connections and early influence on fellow musicians, you start to wonder why Koerner is such a cult figure in American music. Then again, he didn’t exactly aspire to much beyond that.

“I don’t think I was ever really hungry to be famous, although at times you think about getting bigger,’’ Koerner says earlier this week over drinks at the Plough & Stars, where he routinely plays when he’s in town.

“He’s not very good at promoting himself,’’ says Cornish, who lives in Cambridge and first met Koerner when she was working in the kitchen at the Plough & Stars. “He’s put effort into not being more famous. Most musicians are totally dedicated to music, and it’s not like that with him. He finds music interesting, but he also does astronomy and boat-building.’’

Outside of Minneapolis, where he’s lived for most of the past 50 years, the Boston area has been something of a second home for Koerner. His long history here snakes back to the early 1960s when Koerner, Ray & Glover, the Minnesota folk-blues trio that put Koerner on the map, first played at Club 47 (now Club Passim) in Harvard Square. Betsy Siggins brought them to town after discovering the group at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

“I saw them in ’62 or ’63, and I absolutely found them magical and so unorthodox. They were these three kids who were kind of crazy and nutty and had all kinds of rhythms I had never heard,’’ Siggins says. “Their joy was infectious to the whole audience. They filled a niche we didn’t even know we had until they were on the stage.’’

Koerner will turn 73 in August, and his age has become an asset. Like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, he finally looks like he’s always sounded — like a grizzled sage who has lived the hard times he sings about in traditional folk and blues songs. He’s lost most of his hair, his face is lined, but he has retained some of the boyish charm captured on the covers of his earliest records. Still skinny as a rail (“all 7 pounds of him,’’ Siggins quips), he’s gangly in his usual attire of denim pants and flannel shirt. Apparently, 2 in the afternoon isn’t too early to double-fist drinks during an interview.

After a decade of exposing audiences to country-blues, in the early ’70s Koerner moved toward traditional folk music. Right out of the gate he sounded different from his peers. For starters, Koerner came from a blues background, and it showed in his guitar playing, which was heavily indebted to Lead Belly and Big Bill Broonzy.

“I left behind my attempts to play blues guitar, but I took some of the basics of what I did — the rhythm and the fact that I use a lot of thumb — and I simplified it to accompany the folk songs,’’ Koerner says. “It was a little awkward in the beginning, but I kept at it and that’s all I played, traditional public-domain stuff. And now I can tell you that I absolutely do not regret the move.’’

Koerner emerged from a different performance realm, too. He was a barroom belter, not a product of reverent coffeehouse culture.

“I learned to play in bars where you’ve got to punch it out or people will go to sleep on you or just drink and talk,’’ he says. “Sometimes it’s a little rough and tumble in the bars, but you learn how to sing with some power. After years of singing from my throat, I finally learned how to sing from the gut.’’

By the time Koerner became invested in traditional fare, the so-called folk revival of the ’60s had subsided. In retrospect, his timing was impeccable; it liberated him to interpret the music any way he liked, free of expectations and accusations that he was latching onto a trend.

“As far as I was concerned, I was trying to make folk music happen in my own way. I didn’t really care about how other people were doing it,’’ he says. “I just understood the material. All the songs I picked were songs that one way or another — mentally or emotionally — I could find some direct way to relate to what was going on in the song. When I sing it, I’m actually talking about it.’’

Koerner’s catalog is relatively thin for someone who’s been recording since the ’60s, but it’s interesting. “Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes,’’ one of the two records the Nero’s Neptune label recently reissued, is a time capsule from those heady days: “We screwed around and had fun with it,’’ he says of the folk album full of horn-stoked funk. “Everybody was drinking and smoking [pot] and playing this and that. I consider it a good example of how we all were back then.’’

From his early blues records with Koerner, Ray & Glover through his wild, evergreen album with Willie Murphy (1969’s “Running, Jumping, Standing Still,’’ which he considers some of his most innovative work) up to his solo efforts, Koerner has always done exactly what he wanted and on his own terms.

His last studio album, “StarGeezer,’’ was released in 1996, which begs the obvious follow-up question: When’s the next one coming out? Koerner mentions he’d consider making another one but frets that he hasn’t written any new material.

“Writing songs now, to me, is like trying to move a mountain,’’ he says. “It takes years to come up with something I think is any good. I get little ideas, but making them into songs is really hard for me. And the idea of trying to make an album’s worth, I don’t know how the hell I’d do it.’’

Mark Trehus, who runs Nero’s Neptune, has been gunning for Koerner to make a new album, particularly a solo effort that captures Koerner’s essence at this stage of his life.

“John’s singing right now is as good as it’s ever been,’’ Trehus says. “He has more integrity than any other artist I can think of, and he definitely travels to the beat of his own drummer. I think John’s artistry continues to grow.’’

That’s true, but Koerner also acknowledges that he’s made peace with the legacy he’s built.

“I think what I’ve done is what I am now,’’ Koerner says, somehow making such a statement sound like a badge of honor. “I don’t have the energy to try something new. I put it out as well as I can when I do it, and people recognize it as coming out pretty good.’’

James Reed can be reached at