Bob Dylan's Legend Began in Minneapolis, and 'Spider' John Koerner Was There


"Seems a little out of the normal... the choice that they made," says 'Spider' John Koerner over the phone from Minneapolis when asked about yesterday's news that America's mad, mercurial poet Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. "Might have surprised him, too!"

The legend of Bob Dylan, its Greenwich Village beginnings and the artistic renaissance Dylan found there, has been so complete and consistent that it is, moreso than ever now, wholly inseparable from the wider history of the previous century.

But Dylan's transformation from man to historical object began in Dinkytown, a neighborhood in Minneapolis that abuts the state university's campus. When Dylan arrived in 1959, still Robert Zimmerman, Dinkytown's fixed proximity to youth had birthed a vibrant, early-on-the-ground folk scene, prompted Dylan to (as he writes in Chronicles Vol. 1) trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic, and to begin surveying the depths of the roots music, both new and old, he was now in the middle of.

"There were a lot of people who were, y'know, out of the normal range," Koerner says, in his midwestern ho-hum, of the scene at the time. "Dinkytown was a community, a pretty funky area. There were a fairly good bunch of musicians that used to play, and Dylan was just another one of us at that point. But you could see that he had an exceptional talent."

Koerner remembers, in a whisper of a memory bookended by laughter, noticing something special in the very young  folkie's original work. "I have an impression, a little vague, of a song he had written by himself at that time, and remember noticing it was different from what all the rest of us were kinda about. It seemed very... clean, right to the point, and contained poetics that we were not used to understanding."

Spider John is being modest; his trio, Koerner, Ray and Glover, all but formed the center of Minneapolis folk music at the time, and would be lauded for decades -- and acknowledged by their contemporaries -- after releasing Blues, Rags & Hollers in 1963.

(As well, Koerner would, roughly a decade after first meeting Dylan, release the epochal Running, Jumping, Standing Still in 1969, a slab of ragtime psychedelia and a high-water mark of the artistic freedom that characterized the time.)

"It became obvious that there were no rules," Koerner says. "When people start to get productive and creative in that way -- everybody's influencing everybody. People have told me I influenced Dylan. I wouldn't put it that way. What's the quote? 'A great artist doesn't copy... they steal.' You take something and make it your own and it's fair enough."

But back in the days of Dinkytown, as Zimmerman/Dylan soaked up the history he'd eventually rewrite and drew attention from "the young women there, who liked him quite well," Koerner recalls, there were just the guitars, the influential zine Little Sandy Review, and the a little venue called The 10 O'Clock Scholar.