John Koerner obituary

<span>'Spider' John Koerner in 2009. He influenced the young Bob Dylan who described him as ‘an exciting singer’.</span><span>Photograph: Judith Burrows/Getty Images</span>
'Spider' John Koerner in 2009. He influenced the young Bob Dylan who described him as ‘an exciting singer’.Photograph: Judith Burrows/Getty Images

When Bob Dylan enrolled as a teenager at the University of Minnesota in 1959 he went to check out the Minneapolis music scene in the Dinkytown area near the campus, and there, in a “beat coffee house” called the Ten O’clock Scholar, he met a tall, gangling figure with a driving guitar style and a love of the blues, whose long legs had earned him the name “Spider” John Koerner.

Dylan was impressed. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One he recalled that “Koerner was tall and thin with a look of perpetual amusement on his face. We hit it off right away … when he spoke he was soft-spoken but when he sang he became a field holler shouter. Koerner was an exciting singer and we began playing a lot together”.

Those were pivotal years for American music, as young white musicians across the US became fascinated by the early country blues players and began to revive and re-work classic black styles. Koerner, who has died aged 85, played a key role in that scene, both as a guitarist and a singer-songwriter with a rousing style that was driven on by his stomping boots.

He became a folk scene celebrity not with Dylan but as a member of the trio Koerner, Ray & Glover, in which he was joined by the 12-string guitarist Dave “Snaker” Ray and the harmonica player Tony “Little Sun” Glover. A self-styled “fun-loving trio of misfits”, they did not always work together (Ray liked to call the group Koerner and/or Ray and/or Glover) but in 1963 they recorded a massively influential album, Blues, Rags and Hollers.

Originally released on the Audophile label with a pressing of only 300 copies, it came to the attention of the influential Elektra Records, which had Judy Collins and later the Doors on its roster. Paul Rothchild, who produced both Koerner and the Doors, said that his first impression on hearing the trio was of “one doing almost perfect incarnations of Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar, another writing his own songs in an uneven bar style that blew your mind, and one guy on the moon who played the strangest harmonica you ever heard”.

The album included songs by Lead Belly and Robert Johnson, alongside new songs by Koerner and his colleagues. It sounded authentic, unforced, good-natured and exciting – and brought them a following not only in the US but among Britain’s rock aristocracy. John Lennon named it as one of his favourite albums, while David Bowie was a big fan too.

The band recorded two more Elektra albums, Lots More Blues, Rags and Hollers (1964) and The Return of Koerner, Ray and Glover (1965), also playing at the 1964 Newport folk festival alongside the veteran blues hero Mississippi Fred McDowell. A live album from 1963 and 1964, Good Old Koerner, Ray and Glover, was released in 1972.

In 1965 Koerner had released his first solo album, Spider Blues, on which he played seven-string guitar, kazoo and mouth harp and was accompanied by Glover on mouth harp on three tracks. The album included two traditional songs and 12 of Koerner’s compositions, including the nine-minute, half-spoken Rent Party Rag. In the same year he returned to the Newport folk festival and played in the UK for the first time.

For his next album, Running Jumping Standing Still (1969), he was joined by the pianist and bass player Willie Murphy on an adventurous set of his own compositions, with backing from horns and drums.

After releasing another album with Murphy, Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes (1972), he announced he had quit music “for ever”, after which he spent much of his time in Copenhagen. By the time he returned from Denmark he had changed his approach, announcing that he had stopped songwriting and “wasn’t going to try to be like a black guy any more and play the blues”. Instead he adapted his guitar style to folk music.

In 1974 he released Some American Folk Songs Like They Used To, in which he reworked traditional songs including Careless Love, backed by Ray and Glover, and in 1981 he appeared at the Cambridge folk festival in the UK. Another four albums followed, and in 1996 he joined Ray & Glover for a reunion tour. One Foot in the Groove, their final album together, was released the following year.

In 2010 he returned to Britain for his first tour in nearly 30 years. His final album, What’s Left of Spider John, was recorded in 2013 in London with the fiddle player Chip Taylor Smith, and proved he was still in impressive form. His last performance was in 2019.

Born in Rochester, New York, Koerner was the son of Allan, who worked on the atomic bomb project during the second world war and later for Kodak, and his wife, Marion (nee Fenske). In 1956 he went to the University of Minnesota to study aeronautical engineering, and it was there that he learned to play guitar and became interested in the blues. After quitting his degree he ended up in Los Angeles, where, by his own admission, he“kind of lost it”, joining the Marine Corps, which he disliked. Eventually his involvement in a serious car accident allowed him to quit the military and to return to Minnesota and to music.

His other interests ranged over the years from film to astronomy and boat-building.

Spider’s three marriages – to Jeannie Buranen, Lisbet Gerlach Madsen and Laura Cavanaugh – all ended in divorce. He is survived by three children, Matt, from his first marriage, Mia, from his second, and Chris, from a relationship with Bonnie Kalmbach.

• John Koerner , musician, born 31 August 1938; died 18 May 2024