Photo by John Cooper
three worlds of
When John Gorka started his career more than 20 years ago, many people regarded "folk" as a four-letter word. Now, partly due to his way with words, the genre is enjoying a resurgence of interest. Mr. Gorka has been hailed as one of the finest singer/songwriters out there today. Of the ability to put together intelligent lyrics and arresting melodies, he says, "I think of it as a privilege. It's not nuts and bolts. There's always an element of mystery. Where did the song come from?"
His latest album, the High Street/Windham Hill release "Between Five and Seven" contains a dozen explorations of love and life. But he was armed with many more tunes when he entered the studio to record. "Sometimes," Mr. Gorka says, "things take to tape better than other songs you might have felt more strongly about. I don't have a clear idea going in what a project's going to sound like. It takes shape during the recording process."
Mr. Gorka views writing, recording and performing as three separate worlds. "I'm most comfortable writing songs. I'm starting to feel more at ease performing, because I've been doing it so long. The recording world is where I've got the least experience, but I'm beginning to feel comfortable there, as well."
The New Jersey native, inspired by the bluegrass music in television's "The Beverly Hillbillies" and the movie "Bonnie and Clyde," began writing songs and playing banjo during his high school years. Later he concentrated on guitar. Mr. Gorka attended college in Bethlehem, Pa., and frequented a local coffeehouse called Godfrey Daniel's.
"There I saw the kind of performers I realized I wanted to become. They were just making the music they wanted to make. Trying to become big was not the object. The pursuit of mass success would water down what they were good at."
In 1976 Mr. Gorka began his songwriting career. He won the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk Award in '84. But he still wasn't confident that his music would provide him with a career. "I wasn't sure I'd be able to do this until after my first record came out. Even then, I wasn't really sure there would be enough of an audience for the kind of thing I liked to do." His first album, "I Know," came out in '87. It was '91's critically acclaimed "Jack's Crows" that earned him national recognition. Since then, such top talents as Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Maura O'Connell and Mary Black have toured with Mr. Gorka, sung on his albums and recorded his songs.
So many people now want to interpret his compositions that a John Gorka songbook was recently published. Featuring 21 songs from his six albums, its highlights are "Houses in the Fields" and "I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair." Mr. Gorka helped open doors for the New Folk movement. Among his favorite new artists are Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams. "I was one of the lucky ones who got a chance to find an audience in a kind of music that's not all that commercially popular. There are a lot more people doing it now," he says. "Some people have said that they picked up the guitar again or picked it up for the first time after hearing the kind of thing I do. "It's not the kind of music that's so technically oriented that beginners can't play it," he explains. "It doesn't frighten people away because it sounds so complicated. It's not."
He never worried that folk might be out of fashion. "It just always seemed to be that the stuff called 'folk' was my favorite kind of music. I understood why people were putting down some of the stereotypes of the style. But that wasn't the stuff that inspired me. "What I consider folk music now is more of an attitude, more of a grass-roots approach," Mr. Gorka adds. "Rather than expecting a big record company to present them to the world, folk performers are going out and establishing an audience by playing wherever there's a place to play."
Mr. Gorka himself is a tireless performer. He has declared that he's on "the 40-year tour." And he's only half-kidding. "The more I perform, the more I enjoy it. I have to pay attention to logistics and make sure I'm not burning myself out. When the travel connections go smoothly enough and I'm not fried physically, I really love playing live."
Though he has built an impressive following over the years, insecurity hasn't completely disappeared. "I still worry every night that people aren't going to come out," he says. "But it seems like they always do. I'm one of the fortunate ones." To Mr. Gorka, longevity is the key measurement of success. "I'm in it for the long haul, and it looks like the audience is in it for the long haul as well, I'm glad to see. The kind of music I do can provide some continuity to people's lives. That's probably true of folk music in general."