John Gorka at Falcon Ridge, 2007

by John McLaughlin
A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)

We've known John Gorka since the years (1976-79) when we ran the original tabloid newsprint magapaper which eventually became this strange creature, The Digital Folk Life, and he was a college student volunteering in various capacities at Godfrey Daniels, the fine listening club in Bethlehem, PA, that is the subject of some of the discussion which follows.


John had just finished a Saturday afternoon workshop at the 2007 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and by pre-arrangement we met at the trailer which functioned as the backstage "green room," right behind the main concert stage (it got pretty loud - as well as hot! - back there for a while!), and we sat down for the conversation which follows. It's an interesting sidelight into the life of a working folkie, in the early years of his career, and may prove instructive - and maybe sobering? - for some young people thinking how they'd like to follow in his footsteps. Here he is, then, one of the most charismatic and talented of his generation of singer-songwriters, discussing how he got into this strange life, and what followed from there.]

John McLaughlin: John, there's a question I asked Mary Gauthier yesterday, about when did you know you could actually make a living doing this?

John Gorka: I knew I wanted to do it - I first got the idea fairly early on - definitely coming out of college, seeing all those people at Godfrey Daniels, I knew that was what I wanted to be. But there was about… eight years, after coming out of school. I had a part-time job for about three and a half years, and a full-time job for about another two years or so, and then about '86 I got fired from my last job, and then I'd already started working on my first record, and was hoping to make the jump into full-time as a musician. I'm trying to think. Oh, I'd made my first record about three times before I felt like it was ready to go out - yeah - and in September of 87 - it'll be 20 years now.

JMcL: I saw you up at ESU one time….

John Gorka: With Andrew Calhoun?

JMcL:Yeah, wearing those red hightop sneakers…

John Gorka: That's right - I opened for Andrew one time up there -

JMcL:Yeah, I asked them to hire him - and you were wearing those red hightop sneakers -

John Gorka:- that wound up on the cover of the first record - yeah! - so that came out in '87. And at first I was expecting that automatically, once the record was out, audiences would come out!

JMcL: Oh aye!

John Gorka: And they didn't, at first, and when they didn't, I started wondering if it was going to be possible to do it. I was like, "Oh, no, this is like my dream, and maybe it's not going to work!" And then there was a show, I remember it was in Jamaica Plain, up in Massachusetts, and that was in '88, and I'd done my first cross-country tour, and it was pretty miserable, and low turn-outs in questionable venues, it was just a general nightmare.

JMcL:Such a hard blow to the ego.

John Gorka: Oh yeah! And then this show in Jamaica Plain, it was the first time that I felt like the audience was there, for my songs, and not because there was somebody else on the bill? They'd heard the songs, some of the radio stations had been playing them, and that was the first time that I got an inkling that I might be able to do it for a while.

JMcL: What effect did the radio stations have on your early career?

John Gorka: Well, that first record didn't sell a lot, it got me work, and it did get airplay, you know, public radio and community radio.

JMcL: Were you on Gene Shay early on?

John Gorka: Yeah, I was on Gene Shay before I had any records. He was, yeah, he was always very supportive. Yeah. And that was the first record. And then I was on Windham Hill for the sec ond thro to the sixth record, I guess.

JMcL: That's an interesting label. Because I always think of Windham Hill as being, you know, New Age?

John Gorka: That was their reputation. I had an image problem, you know, going into it! And then my records, and Pierce Pettis, and you know, Cliff Eberhart, the first singer-songwriter records they put out, that Legacy record, since it had a Windham Hill label on it, it would wind up in the New Age bins, so that's when they started High Street.

JMcL: So High Street was a Windham Hill subsidiary?

John Gorka: That's right. I mean, they'd find these records in the New Age bins, and there's all these… words! And this singing! [Laughter]

JMcL: Must have been very confusing - words, words!

John Gorka: That's right! [giggles set in….]

JMcL:So then you moved to Red House Records?

John Gorka: No, my first record came out on Red House. Then I moved to Windham Hill/High Street. And then I'd moved to Minnesota in let's see, '96, and got married, and [the late] Bob Feldman had promoted the concerts, he'd been a friend even when I wasn't on the label any more, he was a great force for good music. So we miss him….

JMcL: So you sort of feel like him the same as with [the late] Bruce Kaplan.

John Gorka: Exactly, yeah. Exactly. In fact, the first time I played Chicago, I opened for Claudia Schmidt, and Bruce Kaplan put me up at the Flying Fish offices - I slept on the floor there. He was a very nice guy. He was mad that I didn't send it to him. I felt bad. But Bob had been so enthusiastic about it. Coming out, when I was first thinking about putting out a record, I was thinking Flying Fish or Rounder, because these were the two labels that were putting out this…. But then I heard about this guy, in Minnesota, and yes, it was Red House.

JMcL: Ahhh. This may be jumping it a bit, but how come you wound up… headlining at the Philadelphia Folk Festival?

John Gorka: I don't know.

JMcL: They just turned to you and said, "John, you're on"?

John Gorka: Oh no! I mean, I knew I was supposed to play that night. And I was so concerned about going over my time. So I think I cut my set shorter than it should have been. But yeah, that was a nice thing

JMcL: Let me ask you a totally other question. What did you major in in college? JG: History and philosophy - I had a double major. JMcL: It wasn't English literature?

John Gorka: No.

JMcL: Why not?

John Gorka: Oh, I liked it. I think I wanted to… study things that I couldn't…learn on my own as easily. You, some of those big questions in philosophy and stuff would be hard to figure out on my own. Literature was something that I could kind of pursue on my own….

JMcL: With some exceptions, maybe…

John Gorka: Oh yeah, right, right.

JMcL: I'm thinking maybe Gerard Manley Hopkins… [laughter]… Gimme a breakl here! Or Shakespeare - I mean, it's just not fair the way that guy writes! [laughter continues]. Here, I wanted to ask you, how did you wind up volunteering at Godfrey's?

John Gorka: Oh, a friend of mine, Doug Anderson, we were in the Razzie Dazzie Spasm Band in college, and Doug, he'd done a semester at Moravian and didn't like it, and went to live in New Hampshire for a few years, he knew hundreds of songs, he's now a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Carbondale, he was at Penn State for a long time, as a philosophy professor, and he took me down to Godfrey's because his friend George Gritzbach was putting out his first record -

JMcL: Ah- George Gritzbach!

John Gorka: - and it was getting him booked at Godfrey's, and they were sitting outside, it was like a Tuesday or a Thursday night, they were sitting out there in the front room, and passing the guitar around, and I sang a couple of songs, and I met Dave Fry, who was running Godfrey's at that time along with Cindy Dinsmore, and that was how I first, and I started coming there when I could, when there was somebody I wanted to hear on the schedule, and if there was somebody who looked interesting and I wanted to kind of check em out, coming thro, when they kind of dropped the price, and I didn't have much money, as a college student, so I circled around there, and I started going to the open mikes, eventually volunteering in other ways, I was the soundman, and MC, and usher -

JMcL: That's a great sound system, a great room for acoustics, isn't it?

John Gorka: Oh yeah, it's a warm room. And that's where I got to see the people who eventually I wanted to be like, I didn't think their music and their songs, and their whole presentation was not, uh, compromised by commercial aspirations, people like Claudia Schmidt, and people with talents, and Stan - Stan Rogers, just those nights were magical, what they would play.

JMcL:: Gritzbach went on to do electric blues.

John Gorka: Is that what he's doing now?

JMcL: I don't know about what he's doing now, you know, but about six or seven years ago it could be, I re-met him backstage at Philly, and he had his hair all slicked back, was doing Chicago blues, all electric, it was something else. Like a rock band! JG: I always loved his songs, Gritzbach's songs, remember "The Sweeper"?

JMcL/John Gorka:: "I was a sweeper at the Hilton Hotel, she was a debutante"!!

JMcL: That's the one! Good man, George. I wanted to ask you, what other singer-songwriters influenced you coming up?

John Gorka: Well, the ones who I saw at Godfrey's, like Stan, and then there were people like Claudia Schmidt, who I discovered there, saw there, and then there were the people I got to know froj records. I started sort of collecting singer-songwriters when I was in college, getting them from the local library, as much as I could. I loved Steve Goodman, John Prine, people who were able to have, to bring some humor into a song without making them necessarily novelty songs.

JMcL: Well, I'm thinking of "Diamonds in the Rough," and "Hello in There."

John Gorka: Yeah! Well, people like that, and Tim Hardin, I loved Tim Hardin. Eri Andersen. Well, Eric Andersen, at that time I liked more than Dylan, I kind of learned about Dylan later.

JMcL: Eric Andersen is kind of making a comeback, he's got I think three, at least three records now on Appleseed.

John Gorka: Yeah, that's good.

JMcL: Did you ever play the Cherry Tree?

John Gorka: That was kind of a church hall, it was kind of a separate room,I think it was actually a function room in the church [St Mary's on the UPenn campus in West Philadelphia - ed.]

JMcL: Theresa Pyott said that the singers in the audience used to gravitateto the back wall, for the acoustics, so they could join in, you know?A real singers' room. Sort of like Godfrey's in that sense.

John Gorka: That's right

JMcL:What about Passim's, up in Cambridge [Massachusetts - what used to be Club 47 before it moved to the alley behind the Coop, from next door to Cahaly's Grocery at 47 Mt Auburn Street - ed.].

John Gorka: Oh yeah. Well, Bob and Rae Donlin were so good, that was like the club in Boston, if you could get booked there, that opened up a whole world of coffeehouses in the area. Once you got there, it really kind of legitimized you. And I'd send them tapes, and Bob, other people gave him tapes, Bill Morrissey gave him tapes, Claudia might have, and I'd call up, and he'd say, "No, I don't have anything for you yet - call back in, uh, six weeks," and then I guess it wound up, enough people had mentioned my name, it kind of crossed a critical threshold there….

JMcL: Did you do kind of block booking, from the Cherry Tree to Godfrey's to Passim's? Or was it kind of happenstance?

John Gorka: I - no, it was individual happenstance, at that time [laughs]

JMcL:So what happened from there?

John Gorka: So I opened for Nanci Griffith there. Two shows Friday, two shows Saturday, a radio show Sunday afternoon, and then one show Sunday night. By the end of that my voice was pretty much shot. And Bob was part of that Kerouac thing, part of the Beat Generation, and he ran with them, but he wouldn't talk about those days, it was part of a life that Rae didn't want him to revisit - yeah! - and somewhere in there when Tom Waits agreed to play at Passim's, in the middle 70's, he agreed to play if Bob would talk to him about that - Jamie Brockett told me about that, he went to see that show there, and Tom Waits wanted to know where Kerouac was buried, so he took them there that night, Jamie knew where it was.

JMcL:That's pretty spooky, Kerouac's bones! Lowell's getting a big arts festival, based on that, David Amram's playing up there for that. You mentioned Nanci Griffith. Was she touring behind "Once in a Very Blue Moon" at that date?

John Gorka: Yes, mid-1985, "Once in a Very Blue Moon" had just come out then, and then we played again, about January of 86, and it was "Last of the True Believers" was just coming out, or had come out, and I remember Tony Bird, what's that label he - he used to play with Elvis' band - the record guy - he's the guy who signed Nanci, and Steve Earle, and Lyle Lovett - MCA, that's the label! - he was talking about going from MCA to Rounder, and Rounder to MCA .

JMcL: Was there any thought that you might do that?

John Gorka: Not that I could see, I was still years away from the thought, and I don't think that what I was doing would have fit.

JMcL: Did you fall into the Fast Folk in New York City?

John Gorka: Yes, I was there - I opened for Jack, Jack Hardy in 1979, the first time he'd played Godfrey's, and I got his records.

JMcL: You know, I'd love to see him do a live album, he's so good with an audience, the way he plays them live, he's so incredibly funny with an audience, and that doesn't get a chance with a studio recording.

John Gorka:That's true, and he was another like Stan, they never compromised their songs, it seemed more like literature than, you know, a pop song on the radio.

JMcL: And that incredible discipline of writing a song a week, you know?

John Gorka: Yes, you know, we talked about that that night, at the time he was finishing a song a week, averaging a song a week, all the songs he did that night he'd written in the previous eighteen months. That was amazing to me, that you could come up with that much original material in that short a time. So I started out, that night, doing one a month, and then I was able to go to two a month, and I had my little deadlines, and short of gpoing to Jack's hosted sessions- maybe he still does that, I dunno - weekly songwriters' meetings - I dunno -

JMcL: Did you ever run across the name Al Grierson?

John Gorka: Yes - that name sounds very familiar to me!

JMcL: He's the guy who had a whip-round on folkdj, when he was broke, and got this old truck with it, and then got caught in a flash flood in Texas and drowned.

John Gorka: Oh man…! No, I don't think I did know him - but his name sounds very familiar.

JMcL:Yes, he was a good friend maker - which is a good talent to have. Anyway, I took him up to New York from DC, one of those Folk Alliance conventions was down in DC, and dropped him off at Jack's place, he was going to stay there, that's the contact. Just one ofg those things. JG: I'm not sure if I met him or not. Maybe he's just somebody I heard about, then.

JMcL:I don't think he ever got to play Godfrey's. He was still working on his craft. But a good friend-maker. A good friend.

John Gorka: So I would go there, to Jack's. when I put myself on a schedule. I opened for him in 79, and again in…'83? And I was doing more original music at that time, and he said, "Sometime when you're in the city you should do something for the Fast Folk." There was a group from Godfrey's called "Friends of Godfrey's," who played there at the Speakeasy in February of …82? That was when the first issue of Fast Folk came out. And it was just such an incredible idea, that you could be on a record, and get airplay, without having to be on a record label, you know? And those records did get played, you know, in Boston and so on.

JMcL: I'd just started doing radio a little before that, in 78,and Rod MacDonald got me the Fast Folk Records, and I played them, so they did get on-air in different places.

John Gorka: Oh yeah, Rod was a big part of that scene.

JMcL: And Frank Christian?

John Gorka: Oh yeah, he's great! And Dave Van Ronk was a part of that - yeah, very much so, he was a very encouraging presence. I slept on his couch once!

JMcL: He was such a gruff guy, but so very much a gentleman - a gentle man, Dave.

John Gorka: I very much miss him, yeah. I was living at that time in Easton, PA, and my rent was something like a hundred dollars a month, so I was able to get up to New York, and be a part of that, and survive on a part-time job, and I could be a part of the scene, so I started to do things for the festival, Jack took me under his wing, you know. He said there were a number of writers that he would like to help, and he saiud, "And you're one of them." That was so - so inspiring, so - so thrilling, someone with songs I really respected and had really enjoyed. After that first opening, in '79, I had "The Nameless One" and the one before it? And I had them on the turntable. And I'd play them thro, turn them over and play them again. Play it, flip it over, play it again. So I loved those, to be a part of that, it was really inspiring. So in '84 they had an all-day recording thing at the Speakeasy, invited songwriters and musicians -

JMcL: Mark Dann was part of that?

John Gorka:Yup. Mark Dann was part of that. And Shawn Colvin and Lucy Kaplansky, they walked in together, and I asked them if they'd sing on my songs. Yeahh! Oh yeah! And they were kinda cool, in that New York kind of way, which they had every right to be, which they should be, cause they didn't know me from anybody, and they said, "Well, where's your stuff?" and there wasn't a backstage area, so we went to the women's room, and I played them, "Down in the Milltown," and they wound up singing on it, and they sang on it on the record, when it came out.

JMcL:Perfect.

John Gorka: Oh yeah. So they did live shows at the Bottom Line, in New York City, they did one in '84, I was in the audience, then getting ready for the '85 show Jack asked me to be part of this core singing group, to sing on other people's songs. There was myself, Richard Meyer, Shawn and Lucy - it was a really exciting time. And one of the things I liked about it, being kind of removed from the scene proper at the time, I was able to be inspired by everyone, but not be a part of the politics of the scene, I was kind of removed from that, I called myself, I was an out-patient of that. [laughs] And by the time we realized it was a scene, it was gone.

JMcL: Did you have any contact with Fast Folk when it moved to Los Angeles? I think I recall Richard Meyer was part of that.

John Gorka: No, I know they did different issues of the Fast Folk, when they moved to different cities. But I was kind of removed from it by then. I think I started to get out playing more.

JMcL: Did you - do you have an agent now?

John Gorka: Yeah, Dave Tamulevich. He's with the Roots Agency, Tim Drake's booking agency, but he's my manager. JMcL: When did that happen? JG: Uhh… '87? I had a couple of agents in between, but they didn't get me a lot of work. It wasn't people actively calling to book me, they would take calls.

JMcL:You remember what Tom Rush said when he got himself a pager - "for a folk music emergency??" [laughter]

John Gorka: Is that true? That's funny. No, he's great. But I think in my case it was Bob Feldman said, "If you book him we'll put out his record," and people said, "No, if you put out his record we'll book him"!

JMcL: Sort of toss a coin?

John Gorka: Yes, that's what that first record did, it got me out there.

JMcL: So then you were chasing the record? JG: That's right. And that kind of touring foundation was a big help to Windham Hill when they, well maybe some of the other people didn't have that kind of touring foundation behind them, to be able to get the publicity and stuff. JMcL: And get a reasonable return on their investment?

John Gorka: That's right., It helped them to be able to promote things.

JMcL:Did you ever play Mariposa?

John Gorka: Yes, matter of fact I did, I played a singer-songwriter workshop with John Prine, and I played this song I've never recorded, it's kind of a fake country song, it's called, "The Pilot Light is Out in Our Oven of Love," and I remember him laughing at it [laughter].

JMcL: When did you first play Philly?

John Gorka: 1985.

JMcL: So that's not been all those many years, to headlining.

John Gorka: Well, no, I guess not. I'd opened for Nanci Griffith in early 1984? And then Mark Moss [editor of Sing Out! Magazine - ed] was going down to cover the festival, and there was a competition, and I entered the thing and it turned out I won. And that was the first time I got the idea that people who didn't know me might like my songs. And the next year, in '85, I think I played in Winnipeg, Owen Sound, and Philadelphia.

JMcL: Mitch Podolak's festivals in Canada?

John Gorka: Yes.

JMcL: I like that guy! But let me ask you - what was the first song of yours that you thought, that's a keeper?

John Gorka: I don't know about that, but the oldest song of mine that I still do is called, "Like My Watch." That was written for, submitted to the campus literary magazine at Moravian, and it was the first thing that was ever published. And I thought it was too short to be a song, so I added a bridge, and then I stopped. And people seemed to react to that one.

JMcL: When did you do, "Down in the Milltown"?

John Gorka: I wrote that, it was probably '83, '84.

JMcL: First time I heard that, I thought, "That's a keeper." Sure. Let me ask you, of the songs you've written in say the past five years, which ones do you like the best?

John Gorka: I think "Writing in the Margins," and I think "Road of Good Intentions."

JMcL: "Brown Shirts"?

John Gorka: "Brown Shirts? Well, that kind of applies more now! I wrote that in '91? '92?

JMcL: For the First Gulf War, and Bush the Elder?

John Gorka: Exactly.

JMcL: Well, I don't want to take up too much of your time, John, because I know you're very busy this weekend, with your schedule. Is there anything I should have asked you, and didn't?

John Gorka: Oh, nothing I can think of, but I love talking about those days, I went up the hill last night, Dave Massengill told me that Jack Hardy is here. And Andrew Calhoun is here. And Jack said do you want to play, and it was really fun, and I didn't get back to my room til five in the morning!

JMcL: Massengill and Calhoun are here camping? I gotta take a look - Andrew is an old, old friend. I met him in '83 or '84 at a coffeehouse conference in Geneseo, NY, , and everyone was chasing after this guy - an amazing, a major talent!

John Gorka: Uh-huh, uh-huh! I think I met him there, I might have read about him in "Come For to Sing!" [Emily Friedman's Chicago-based magazine of that era - ed] - and he was… I think I met him again at the 25th Anniversary of Café Lena in '85, I opened for Michael Cooney the night before, so to get into the first 25 years of Café Lena [legendary coffeehouse in Saratoga Springs, upstate NY - ed]- just under the wire! [laughs]

JMcL: It's rich.

John Gorka: What?

JMcL: It's rich, this life that you've lived.

John Gorka: Oh yeah, I love being part of the folk world, seeing all these great people, the memories, you know? Some starting out, some a different stages of their lives - I love it. So many great people - Van Ronk, Stan - and Garnet Rogers - Jack….

JMcL: Well, look, if you ever get down to DC, I'm on-air there on the University of Maryland's station in College Park, WMUC, and I'd love to get you on-air there some Friday morning. We're also on the Internet, unless of course this DMCA thing puts a stop to that. Well….

John Gorka: I'd love that.

JMcL: If it works out, that'd be fine. If it doesn't - that'll be OK too, John. Thank you again for your time.

[And I clicked off the tape-deck at that point, and we got out of the trailer into the afternoon sunlight, and someone else said hi to John, and they started talking about one of the things that had happened in the morning's showcase and I wandered away, smiling happily. Thanks again for a lovely, meandering conversation, John. And now - to the record booth!] [Regrettably, I couldn't find Andrew Calhoun up the hill camping at Falcon Ridge, but if you'd like a sampling of his mind in action, here's a link to an email interview we carried out for The Digital Folk Life, just after Andew's "Telfer's Cows'" a CD of Scots ballads, came out on hius own Waterbug label not too long ago:…]