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.

Mr. Koerner first became known as a member of Koerner, Ray & Glover, whose first album was released in 1963 and reissued in 1995.Credit…Compass Records

“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.”

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