"Just me and my guitar"

John Gorka says a folk singer's job is to tell the truth

Jun. 1, 2006. 01:00 AM
GREG QUILL ENTERTAINMENT COLUMNIST .........................................................

Economy is John Gorka's stock in trade.

Not fiscal economy, of course. As one of the pre-eminent figures in the new folk movement that sprang up in the New England states in the 1980s, the New Jersey-born and raised, Minnesota-based singer-songwriter knows well that the trail of the lonesome troubadour isn't exactly paved with gold and glory.

But when the nub needs exposing, when the point needs to be made with nothing more than a focused lyric, a deep and settled voice and a guitar that brooks no fancy indulgences, few do it better than Gorka. He says he owes much of what he knows about communicating in song to a Canadian folk icon, the late Stan Rogers.

"He had a huge impact on me the first time I saw him at Godfrey Daniels (the Bethlehem, Pa., coffeehouse where Gorka was resident host and chief bottle-washer for the first two years of his performing life) in December 1980," the songwriter said on the phone earlier this week from a Minneapolis studio. He was at work putting the finishing touches on his ninth CD, Writing In The Margins, scheduled for release on the U.S. Red House label July 12.

Gorka, who also lists Canadian folkies Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and James Keelaghan among his prime influences, is appearing tonight at Hugh's Room, his first Toronto gig in more than two years.

"I have every song Stan ever recorded, and I keep learning from them. I've recorded `The Lock Keeper' (a contented soul's sentimental apology for refusing a life of high-seas adventure, from the posthumous 1984 Rogers album, From Fresh Water) for this new CD, as well as (the late) Townes Van Zandt's `Snow Don't Fall'.

" The remaining songs, Gorka explains, are originals written mostly during his sporadic, week-long road trips "songs that were scribbled on the backs of envelopes, bits of notepaper, the margins of books" and embellished in the studio with feature performances by singers Nanci Griffith, Lucy Kaplansky and Alice Peacock.

"Now that I have kids it's difficult to find time to write at home. I used to have a strict regimen two songs a month but now I write whenever I can, which is usually when I'm out of the house, and that isn't as often as it once was."

The new compositions are less personal than fans might expect, he adds. "There are some with political content, others that make reference to what's on the minds of people I meet along the way, songs that touch common thoughts and concerns.

"One of the things I like about folk songs as opposed to other forms is that you can sing about anything. Part of the folk singer's job is to tell the truth, to be honest about presenting an accurate sense of the times we live in.

" But he's not jumping on the protest bandwagon, he insists. "There's a point to be made for singing to the choir, but it's not what I do. I try not to push other people's buttons. I prefer to bring people together, not divide them. I don't like taking the presumed liberalism of my audience for granted."

Gorka also prefers the intimacy of the solo performance, and has acquired an engaging knack for communicating through his between-song yarns and casual patter. The simplicity of his art has endeared him to folk music fans all over the world, and earned him a spot last December, along with folk/country artists The Ennis Sisters, Tracey Brown and Willy Porter, on one of the three CPR Holiday Trains. These mini-folk music festivals have rolled across Canada and the northeastern U.S. every Christmas and New Year since 1999, presenting concerts at railroad crossings and stations in small towns and villages from specially rigged boxcars, and raising money and edibles for Canadian and American food banks.

"You can't do that with a band," says Gorka, who opened for Mary Chapin Carpenter and her band on a lengthy tour a few years back. "I enjoy playing with other musicians when I can, but watching that band up close every night, I knew that wasn't for me. I never wanted to be a bandleader.

"Just me and my guitar ...I guess I'm one of the lucky ones."