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Hangman, hangman slack that rope...”: Revisiting Koerner, Ray and Glover

So it is on nights like these, when rain that should be snow pounds against the window and sets me to tossing and turning because I’m afraid another leak will spring in the roof of this 126 year old house and send the third floor tenant running for a lawyer, that I think of Koerner, Ray and Glover. Why? That’s just how I roll__out of bed.

I must go now to the back of the house and listen to that tune which Leadbelly called “Gallis Pole,” which Led Zeppelin certainly called “Gallow’s Pole” and which as “Hangman,” Spider John Koerner, along with Dave “Snaker” Ray and Tony ”Little Sun” Glover, reworked into particles of current that still ebb and flow through the knob and tube wiring of my brain.

Like so many British folk tunes, “Gallow’s Pole,” snaked its way over time from the mid-Atlantic states to deep down South, and what you’ll hear in Koerner, Ray and Glover’s take (as well Leadbelly’s ) that you won’t in Zeppelin’s is the narrative piece.

A condemned man stands on the scaffolding facing the hangman hoping that his nearest and dearest will ride up post haste with enough currency to upend the inevitable. In this case, the man waits for his father, mother and wife. Now you’re probably wondering how such grim stuff can possibly get me through the night. Well, I’ll tell you; it’s not so much what the singer says, in this case Spider John Koerner, it’s the way he says it. Koerner, Ray and Glover’s is the loosest, most spirited version of “Gallows Pole” you’re likely to hear and emblematic of their jumpy, good time approach to American folk and blues music.

Koerner’s all-revved up on the piece, strumming furiously on his customized 7-string National guitar and laying out the storyline, first as spoken word, then as singing. He may be whistling past the graveyard since there’s no closure, but when he tells the hangman to “slack the rope, slack it a little while,” you believe that he believes his woman, who arrives last but not without loot, has saved him. It’s pure Koerner when he ad libs, “She had all kinds of junk/She had a whole cartload of stuff.”

Maybe not all of their 1963 debut record, Blues, Rags &Hollers, holds up as well as “Hangman,” but their approach, which was irreverent in a sneaky, Mid-Western way, elevates the effect of such trad tunes as “Bugger Burns,” and Sleepy John Estes’ “Stop That Thing,” and originals like Ray’s “It’s All Right,” and Koerner’s “Goodtime Charlie.” If that sounds ironic, then it’s the same kind of irony that fueled the psychedelic folk/bluegrass mojo of the Holy Modal Rounders. Maybe KR&G weren’t as loopy as the former duo, but they represented a different kind of climate in the growing urban folk scene of the early 1960’s.

You almost expect the dis served up in producer Paul Nelson’s liner notes for the original Audiophile recording of Blues, Rags & Hollers (only 300 pressed on translucent red vinyl---know anybody who’s got one?), when he boasts that KR&G stand a breed apart from their contempos, that field of “half-baked pop adaptations being palmed off as a real folk-music.” Okay, one look at them and you knew they wouldn’t be sharing Carnegie Hall dates with the likes of Peter Paul and Mary or The Kingstown Trio (although they did play the Newport Folk Festival in 1964). But that's easy to say, and it's never been the thing appealed to me about them.

No, the thing that really set them apart was that they were just as decidedly anti-folkloric. In his notes, Nelson toned it up by saying “…-perhaps the basic fact that needs to be understood if our ‘folk revival’ is ever going to have any artistic meaning: working within a tradition and its styles should not prove to be a bind to creativity.”

Translation: these boys met in the University of Minnesota’s Dinkytown bars, played at rent parties and honed their skills among drinking and doping beatniks, intellectuals, and pranksters and when they play, it’s earnest but it sounds mostly like a house party.

Of course the folklorists who actually made the effort to find the Southern black blues players covered by KR&G and others, and bring them into the public eye never exactly bought into Nelson’s reasoning. There was a backlash, but Koerner, Ray and especially Glover, a multi-talented guy who wrote about the blues for a range of music magazines from The Little Sandy Review to Creem, authored a biography of Little Walter (Blues with a Feeling) and continues to publish instructional books on blues harp playing, never let on if it bothered them at all.

After making three records for Elektra, including an edited version of the Audiophile Blues Rag & Hollers, they went their separate ways, joining up again as duos, and trading off making records with each other in every possible configuration, which prompted Ray’s joke about how it would be better to call them "Koerner and/or Ray and/or Glover."

It’s heartening to see that they’re still at it, even after the passing of Dave Ray in 2002. Koerner and Glover released Live @ the 400 Bar, last spring, which makes me believe that some things are meant to be. I have to believe that the rain which should have been snow will stop before there’s any real trouble. That’s right. I have to believe also that I won’t be hearing from lawyers anytime soon and the guy in the song will to live to hang another day.

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