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Spider John Koerner - Koernering The Market

So he moved to the great discarded American folk song repertoire – all those classic ones which were in the song books of the era but nobody actually sang any more – Acres Of Clams, Careless Love, Abdullah Bulbul Amir

“I was in Denmark. I got Henrik Pedersen and a guy named Jørgen Lang, he was a harmonica player, and Henrik – I don’t know whether he’d been doing it before or not – he decided to play the washboard. And we played all over Denmark. Started out just going into open stage kind of things, just to test it all out. Then at a point I decided I’d go back to the States and try and make a little money for a couple of months. It kinda worked out. I quit my job at the porcelain factory. I went over and I had these jobs, well, OK ‘Spider John Koerner’s gonna play’, right? And I get up there, and I remember the first job I played, I played this set, all these folk songs, and then I played another set of all folk songs. Took a break and some of the people came up to me and asked ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And it was like, alright, this is going to take some getting used to! But eventually, like I say, it came around and that’s what I felt like doing.”

“I had the books and my own way of playing, and just put the two together. It’s not that difficult, and like I say, the material is really tasty stuff, and if you’ve got a little style to play it with… and, you know, the ones I play are the ones that were in the popular collections, so why not? Actually I have to admit I do get a kick out of that, taking these songs that some of those people wouldn’t play any more…”

“My attitude is ‘You guys abandoned the ship. I’m gonna show you how to play them, and how people like them when you play that way.’ I played a job with Dave and Tony down in Chicago, and the New Lost City Ramblers were on the same bill. They played The Cuckoo, I think they were in front of us. And me and Dave played that, he was into his jazz style, and I said ‘OK, now we’re going to go out and show those boys how to play Cuckoo’. A little arrogance there, but you can take those songs if you know how to treat ’em properly. You have to have some sense of what they’re supposed to feel like, but you can do that, man, they’re just solid.”

“If I’m in good form the whole idea is to feel that song as it’s going along as though you are part of it. I don’t pick songs to play unless I know how to relate to them internally. I rejected plenty of songs because I just couldn’t do that. So the object, every time, is always to try and feel that story as you do it.”

So assuming that he, as we all hope, lives to an even riper old age, is he happy to keep doing this? Is this a good life? Is he on a mission?

“You mean just what I play now? Oh yeah, I don’t mind going out and playing. I’m not really all that interested in playing for my own self, but I understand that it’s a good thing for me to go out and play and I do that. At my age I have less stamina than I used to, but I’ve known some old guys that’s older than me… If you wanna talk about missions, I’m on a mission but it has nothing to do with the folk music. I wanna try and explain to the world that there’s too many people on the face of this planet, and the human race is gonna have to learn to do something it’s never done before which is grow down. But I don’t know how you do that.”

He could join America’s hordes of singer/songwriters and start making really boring songs about it, but that probably wouldn’t do much good either!

“Actually, I was thinking one time of – do you remember flagpole sitters? That was way, way, way back. People used to do that, and I thought ‘Yeah, that hasn’t been done for a while’. Maybe I should go up on a flagpole and broadcast and talk to people on the phone and try and get the message out. They’d send a camera up there to get a look at you, wouldn’t they? I’m just joking of course…”

“The main thing you want is for your venues to be places where the people who are going to come there are looking forward to it. Sometimes you play jobs and you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, or something like that. You want the public to be there and enjoy it, you want the boss to feel like he’s made good business and you want the performer to go away with some wages that are reasonable, and that’s it, that’s showbiz.”

Koerner, 2010
Koerner, 2010 Photo: Judith Burrows

From fRoots 325, July 2010 – incorporating some sections from an earlier interview published in fR150, December 1995


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