One of my fondest college memories involves a solo trek through a classic November Minnesota snowstorm into Minneapolis to see ‘Spider’ John Koerner and Tony Glover at the 400 Bar in 2008. As a 19 year old kid, I knew next to nothing about their work, but I had noted their inclusion in Bob Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles, and Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home (couldn’t avoid noticing a name like “Spider” John Koerner). For someone lured from the east coast to Minnesota at least in part because of Dylan’s connection with the Minneapolis folk scene, I figured the $5 ticket price and a treacherous snowy bus ride was more than a fair price to pay to see these two collaborators from Dylan’s very short-lived college days.
When I walked into the legendary 400 Bar that night, I looked around and realized I had stepped into a different world. I was unaware of the full extent of the 400 Bar’s incredible history then – but as I watched Spider John and Tony Glover casually sipping drinks at the bar before the show, it certainly makes sense that they had first brought live music to the venue over thirty years before. Being the youngest in the room by a solid 30-40 years, there was an air of sneaking into a private gathering of old friends, but no one seemed to mind.
The pair started humbly with no introductions needed – Koerner grabbed his guitar and started picking and stomping his foot as Glover’s wailing harmonica weaved in and out and they settled into rhythm. I recognized the tune, as well as a couple of the lyrics, as the familiar traditional ‘Careless Love’, though admittedly, most of these lyrics were new to me. And just like that, I had learned a crucial lesson in traditional folk music – these songs were still alive, and had continued to grow over time. The show followed that pattern – nearly all familiar songs, nearly all with lyrical alterations sometimes added from various versions over the years, sometimes made up by this duo – and with their intricate knowledge of folk music, it was hard to tell which was which. Occasionally, they would pause between songs to discuss their histories, and the small but mesmerized crowd soaked up each word in rapt attention, understanding a masterclass in traditional blues and folk music was taking place before their eyes. It didn’t hurt that the pair sounded half their age – with Spider John’s picking still sharp and lightning fast while Glover delivered frantic blues solos, slow, moody wails and everything in between. When Koerner engaged the crowd between songs, Glover silently looked somewhere between bored and disgruntled, desperate to return to playing, his preferred method of communication.
Since Tony Glover’s death last week, I’ve spent a lot of time not only reminiscing about that show but also reexamining the Koerner, Ray & Glover discography, which continues to sound at least as revolutionary today. Revolutionary may sound like an odd adjective to describe three albums of acoustic folk and blues performed by three college-educated white guys, released at the height of the sixties folk revival. But just take a listen to the album pictured above, their second, a personal favorite of mine in the genre, featuring unmatched authenticity and intensity. This, this was something wild, mixing covers of Leadbelly and the like with surprisingly strong original material – material that was nearly impossible to distinguish from the traditional songs without assistance from the liner notes.
Unlike most white musicians in the early sixties, Koerner, Ray & Glover wore their black influences proudly on their sleeve. There was no Led Zeppelin-esque stealing here, with each album’s liner notes full of quotes from the group on the origins of each song, and the band even gave themselves affectionate blues nicknames like their black heroes. John Koerner, a tall mess of a lanky limbs, became ‘Spider’, Dave Ray, a master of the 12-string guitar, became ‘Snaker’ and Tony Glover, an intensive student of Sonny Terry and Sonny Boy Williamson, became ‘Little Sun.’ With relentlessly hard driving guitar picking and Glover’s harmonica work, this was far more intense than the day’s more popular folk music – and incorporated a more comprehensive source of influences including gospel, ragtime and work songs.
These three had studied records intensely and practiced their instruments with even more dedication, and you can certainly hear plenty of Leadbelly in Dave Ray, as well as Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee in the flawless interplay between Koerner and Glover. With the raucousness of the performances, instrumental brilliance and strong, clever originals with a midwestern beatnik cool, this one has everything you could want. I won’t bother describing specific songs since the album includes descriptions from Paul Nelson and the band that far outdo anything I could provide. Though their discography won’t be filling the vinyl dollar bins, their albums are available (Looks like there are several very reasonably priced copies on Discogs right now), absolutely essential, and some of the best and clearest sounding acoustic blues records you’ll ever find. Produced by Elektra’s head Jac Holzman with Paul Rothchild, most famous for producing The Doors, my crystal clean original press sounds as good as anything in my collection.
In the liner notes, John Koerner is quoted saying, “Tony’s harmonica sounds like a nasty little bug about to bite someone.” Indeed. He could make it sound like whatever he wanted to, highlighted by “Honey Bee”, “Can’t Sleep This Night” and “What’s The Matter With the Mill” here. Tony Glover was one of the first to bring the harmonica into the world of white urban folk music, paving the way for Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, who both touted him as a key influence and teacher, among others. And through the one time I was lucky enough to see him and the still exciting albums he’s left behind, he’s taught me plenty too.