2007 a top-notch year for Gorka:
Musician performing at Arts Center looks back on moments of success



By Jordan Bartel

Friday, February 01, 2008

Musician John Gorka will perform at 8 pm Saturday at the Carroll Arts Center.

For musician John Gorka, it may be hard to outdo 2007

On Gorka's Web site, he has listed his Top Ten Favorites of 2007. He actually lists 36 things - clearly a good year - and among them are visiting the Woody Guthrie Archive (No. 5) and collaborating with Guthrie (No. 6). How did No. 6 come about, since Guthrie, an idol to Gorka and countless other singer-songwriters, died more than 40 years ago?

Nora Guthrie [Woody's daughter] has been doing a great job of getting his unpublished lyrics out to songwriters and musicians," Gorka said. "I was overwhelmed to be a part of it."

Gorka was invited by the Woody Guthrie Foundation in New York City which houses the archives, including a collection of nearly 25,000 unpublished lyrics, to pick a few tunes for later use. Gorka has been working on getting them recorded.

"Nora's goal is to have this full measure of what he created," Gorka said. "It's to preserve that, to establish or re-establish his place in music. People only know a part of what he did."

He didn't start listening to Guthrie until high school and college, but Gorka is a logical choice to help ensure that Guthrie's legacy remains intact. Born in 1958, at the tail end of the 1950s/1960s folk revival, Gorka has spent the last four decades regularly performing his own brand of effecting, mellow folk. Steadily on the road since the 1970s, Gorka will stop in Westminster at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Carroll Arts Center, part of the Common Ground on the Hill concert series.

His sound, his rich baritone paired with his evocative lyrics has been described simply as "Gorka," a description he doesn't quite know what to make of.

"I haven't seen that," Gorka said. "If I saw it, I wouldn't know what to think."

Gorka was raised in Colonia, N.J., He grew up listening to the Beatles, Elvis and the Beach Boys, before getting a guitar as a present when he was 10. The guitar was quickly stolen by his bother, but Gorka didn't mind - he was more interested in the banjo anyway, and, by the time he was in high school, the music of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Bill Scruggs.

He started performing live while a member of his church's folk group before playing to a wider audience during freshman orientation at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa. He, of course, was nervous.

"I was pretty horrible," he said of that performance. "I ended up not going the songs I had practiced."

A history and philosophy double major, Gorka soon gravitated towards music. He naturally found himself at Godfrey Daniels, a local coffeehouse known for attracting musicians as they either went to play in New York City and Philadelphia, or who had finished performing gigs there.

"My first time there was a Tuesday or Thursday and musicians just kind of sat in the front room, passing the guitar and playing a couple of songs," Gorka said. "I was always drawn to music, but didn't know it had possibility as a career until I saw people at Godfrey Daniels. I realized this is what I want to do."

Gorka started attending more open mic nights and then became a regular. By his senior year, he was hosting the open mic nights. He was writing his own material and performing. After graduation, Gorka had a part-time job delivering flowers - "I learned to hate Valentine's Day," he said. "It always snowed." - but soon gave that up to tour full time.

"The stuff I was hearing [at Godfrey Daniels] was better than anything I was hearing on the radio," he said. "It was almost more than literature than pop songs."

Folk, to Gorka, was more about real life. It was more personable and less vapid than other forms of music. Soon began the gradual process of touring and writing songs, getting gigs and making fans. He had hoped to put out his first album by the time he was 25. He didn't quite make it - he was 29 - but the result, 1987's "I Know" was acclaimed.

Upon the release of "I Know," Rolling Stone called Gorka the leader of "the 'new folk' movement." "I thought of that as kind of a marketing term," Gorka said. "I always thought of myself more as continuing a tradition."

Nine albums have followed (the most recent was 2006's "Writing in the Margins), not including a 1994 EP and a 2006's "Best of" collection. Gorka has always toured, averaging 150 gigs a year in the past. He's toned that down a bit, ever since he got married, had two children, now aged 10 and 8 and settled near Stillwater, Minn.

And Gorka, whose stellar 2007 included the release of a DVD, "The Gypsy Life," is now working on his next album.

"It's a kind of music that is good at keeping people grounded," Gorka said. "One of folk's roles today is keeping people in touch with their own histories. We live in such a mobile society now. Folk is a way of keeping track of your own life as you move from place to place."

Reach staff writer Jordan Bartel at 410-857-7862 or jordan.bartel@carrollcountytimes.com.

What: John Gorka
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 2
Where: Carroll Arts Center, 91 W. Main St., Westminster
Cost: $17 for adults, $15 for seniors 65 and older, children 12 and younger and students
Information: Call 410-857-2771 or go to www.commongroundonthehill.org