Local Current Blog

Music History Spotlight: West Bank legends Spider John Koerner and Willie Murphy

"Spider" John Koerner (left, publicity photo) and Willie Murphy (photo by Nate Ryan/MPR)

Throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, folk and blues duo Spider John Koerner and Willie Murphy toured the country, making stops at top folk clubs like Boston’s Club 47. Known today as prominent shapers of the West Bank music scene, the two are credited with influencing acts like Bonnie Raitt and recent Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan. Though they only performed together for a few years, their 1969 breakout album “Running, Jumping, Standing Still” has a lasting cult following. 

“There’s no other record really that sounds like it, before or after,” said Mark Trehus, owner of Treehouse Records and Nero’s Neptune records. “It’s unique in a way that’s kind of difficult to describe, it’s just the confluence of talent that’s brought together on that record…. It sounds more like the Minneapolis West Bank scene of that era than anything that has held up over the years.”

The collaboration came to fruition when Elektra Records took interest in some new songs Koerner was writing, following his work he did for the label with Dave Ray and Tony Glover, Koerner said. They asked him to find a band to help him develop them more.

“So I came here and started asking people who might be worth talking to, they said Willie Murphy,” Koerner said. “So I talked to Willie, and Willie’s a master musician. I don’t know why he’d want to do something with a folk singer but we worked on it and I’d say that would be the most creative part of my so-called career.”

Koerner was the main lyric writer, as he had already drafted most of the material, Murphy said. Meanwhile, Murphy brought his own music theory-based perspective to the collaboration. The 11-track album is filled with time signature changes, intricate rhythms and unconventional harmonic structures. The two would meet several times a week, crafting detailed arrangements for each song, Murphy said.

“The Beatles had made themselves known, and you started realizing that you can do things that were not so usual and be experimental,” Koerner said. “So we got into that kind of mood. And Willie’s a master musician, so he was capable of enhancing everything we did.”

The album was recorded in just a few days at the historic Paxton Lodge, Murphy said. Elektra Records had rented out the lodge for one year, during which two albums were recorded: Jackson Browne’s “Baby Browning,” and “Running, Jumping, Standing Still,” the lodge’s website says.

“The so-called record and music industry was exploding, and so to go along with the feeling at the time, or the hippie ethos, a lot of the studios were trying to have a place in the country,” Murphy said.

But within that year — and after the albums had been finished — the on-site manager was fired from Elektra for overspending, Murphy said. A Rolling Stone article from the time notes that the company had spent at least $75,000, on what Murphy recalls might have been exorbitant amounts of booze and food.

“It was just like a big party, really,” Murphy said. “When we started our record, [the manager, Frazier Mohawk] bought 15 cases of beer and several bottles of whiskey, just for us, and we had a lot of fun. I know a couple of the songs, I got everybody I could singing around the mic and playing instruments.”

Koerner and Murphy continued their touring years after the album, which included opening gigs for Jefferson Airplane. But the group disbanded after a few years when the traveling grind grew to be too much, Murphy said.

While not a bestselling album, “Running, Jumping, Standing Still” garnered praise — most famously from John Lennon — and remains a cult favorite today.

“We’re glad we got away with what we did,” Koerner said.

Jackie Renzetti studies journalism and political science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and co-hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”

  • Bucky

    ‘Running, Jumping, Standing Still’ is a great record! It’s essential listening for anyone interested in the late-1960s Twin Cities music scene. Along with the tracks mentioned above, ‘Red Palace’, ‘I Ain’t Blue’, ‘Sidestep’ are all outstanding. While sadly neglected by radio today, I think The Current should put the record on the playlist (couldn’t find any evidence of it in the playlist search). Bill DeVille: are you listening?

  • I love hearing my dad’s stories of this era. He was bartender & manager at The Mixer (Now Republic) on 7 Corners all through School and post-grad and saw these guys, and Koerner, Ray & Glover, a million times.