Musician find a home in the world of folk
By Geri Parlin of the Tribune staff
John Gorka left for college in Bethlehem, Pa., in the late '70s armed with a banjo and an urge to play bluegrass. But then he discovered Godfrey Daniels coffeehouse and changed his mind.
At Godfrey Daniels, the music was folk, and John Gorka felt he had found a musical home. He picked up a guitar and started writing music, and he's still doing that more than 20 years down the road. "It's the kind of music I've always wanted to do. I consider myself an aspiring folk singer," he said, "but I'm not the one who gets to decide."
What he did decide, however, is folk music seemed to be the closest to the heart of what his music is about. "I went into music because I had sort of a calling to write songs. The folk music world provided the widest range of possibilities for a song. I think I just headed in that direction, and it seemed like the place that was most encouraging." He had a head start even before he arrived at Godfrey Daniels. "In high school, I would go to the library and read Sing Out! magazine.
" But he needed to hear and see folk music performed to head in that direction, he said. "I wasn't looking for it when I went to college. My main thing was wanting to be a bluegrass banjo player. Going into college, I knew I wanted to pursue music, but official classes didn't really provide for the kind of music I wanted to do." So he learned on the job at Godfrey Daniels, and even if he wasn't willing to call himself a folkie, he was playing the folk music circle. "Somebody said to specialize - that I would get farther if I concentrated on one thing rather than being all over the place," he said, so he concentrated on writing and performing his own music.
"I am able to express a larger part of myself through the music." A few years ago, he got married and became a father. That has brought the biggest change to his music and his life, he said. He has cut down on touring and the way he approaches the business of music. "Since becoming a dad, now I try to write whenever I can," he said, but time for that is more difficult to find. "I think, in some ways, the point of view has changed. I feel more like a participant than a spectator in general. Some of my earlier things had a sense of place but it was more as an observer," he said. "Now I'm in the middle of something," That middle of something is fatherhood, and he says it has changed his life.
"It's changed touring. Now, I go out for three or four shows, and then I'm home. I don't go out for more than that." Even that pared-down schedule is hard when you are trying to balance work with home life, he said. "It's still a challenge, and it's hard on my wife when I'm away. But it's better than being away for 10 days or longer. It's hard to leave home now, but I still love to play, so that really hasn't changed. There are fewer shows now, so each one counts for more.
" When he performs for the Friday night opening concert at the Great River Folk Festival in La Crosse next weekend, he said he will go on stage without a set list. "I'll be doing a fairly chaotic blend of things old and new. I try to do songs that seem right for that time and place. I listen for what people shout out and the way they shout out. It's not always the loudest request that gets played," he said. "Sometimes it's the way a person asks for a song.
" Though it's a little less secure to walk on stage without a set list, it's a lot more fun, Gorka said. "I try to be open to suggestions and stay flexible. It is more fun because then people know that I'm not doing the same show I've done the previous year or two.
" Gorka said he doesn't get tired of people requesting his old songs. He's just happy to have old songs people want to hear. "I don't mind doing older songs because they've had a chance to find a place in people's lives. I don't feel like I have to play the last five songs I've written." While Gorka always wanted to make music for a living, he said it gratifying to be this many years down the road and still doing what he loves.
"I've been one of the fortunate ones. I've found an audience for the kind of music I do. I knew it wasn't going to be a mainstream type of music." And, it turns out, not bluegrass banjo. "I still have a banjo and it's still in working order," he said. "I used it on the 'After Yesterday' album. I haven't totally given up on it."