Before Beginning: The Unreleased I Know

The 1987 debut CD "I Know"


John Gorka- Before Beginning
The Unreleased I Know - Nashville - 1985 2016, Red House Records

Rambles.NET music review by Jerome Clark, July 16, 2016

Pennsylvania-bred, Minnesota-based singer-songwriter John Gorka released his first album, I Know, in 1987. Before Beginning is his 13th. Well, sort of. It's also his first by two years.

In 1985 he went into a Nashville studio with Jim Rooney, a Music City stalwart with roots in the Boston/Cambridge folk scene. The result, the CD under review, was typical of "folk" recordings of its period. Consisting of self-composed as opposed to traditional and cover material, it was arranged more or less as if it were country music. That presentation style would pass out of fashion as artists and their producers figured out more creative ways to showcase folk and folk-like songs in a contemporary setting.

At the time, however, the 25-year-old Gorka was uncomfortable with the results of that first serious recording session. Even after the not inconsiderable investment in time and expense, Gorka opted not to release the record. Two years later he issued I Know with newly, differently arranged versions of nine of the songs cut earlier.Three decades later, Gorka has decided that the Nashville material deserves a hearing, thus Before Beginning .

Without knowing the man (though we have mutual friends), I think I understand the source of Gorka's uneasiness. Surely, one part of it had to be a sense that it sounded too much like other albums then in circulation. Or maybe he wanted a less full sound; there isn't much room to breathe here, sonically speaking. Well, actually, none. For an ambitious young artist the decision to hold on to the record speaks to his integrity as an artist. It couldn't have been an easy choice.

Still, Before Beginning can be heard with pleasure. It's not bad by any stretch, and it has the virtue of opening with one of Gorka's most enduring songs, the beautifully crafted "Down in the Milltown," which just about any writer would be proud to have created. Broadly patterned after "Down in the Valley," it captures a sense of person and place that feels moving and authentic. Prior to its appearance here I'd heard the song once, in the mid-1980s, and never forgot it. That doesn't happen often.

The other nine songs, which touch jazz and rock bases as well as folk, anticipate -- minus the occasional topical piece -- the romantic and observational subjects Gorka has engaged since then. Either you respond to that, or you don't. Without ever attaining pop stardom, Gorka, who possesses a beguiling craggy tenor that counts among his most obvious charms, has maintained a loyal audience of listeners who appreciate what he's doing and who come back for more. Nobody would argue that he doesn't do it with the skill and confidence of a pro. Like all that followed, Before Beginning attests to the quietly warm-hearted qualities of Gorka's music. .

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