Dig deep and you'll find wit in Gorka's songs



Friday January 11, 2008
By Philip Schwartz

Gazette Reporter

Unlike his recorded work, which has at times ventured into darker territories, John Gorka's live show can take a turn toward the humorous.

The last time Gorka played an Eighth Step concert - in November 2006 at The College of Saint Rose in Albany - the singer/songwriter joked with the audience about being able to pick up on their requests telepathically. There was no need for them to shout out "Lightning's Blues" or "Always." His capo, he said, actually acts as a receptor.

Maybe this runs counter to expectations about a guy who has written quietly weighty contemporary folk songs that deal with the complexities of being human. But go back and listen to those recordings again - especially after the live experience - and find a more subtle wit underneath.

When reached earlier this week at his home outside Saint Paul, Minn., Gorka speculated that that's the best way to view his work - start with the live show and then dig deep into the discography. Only then will the subtle nuances of his humor start to make more sense.

"What I've always liked in other people's music, in a John Prine or a Steve Goodman, they've always been able to mix the serious and the humorous together," said Gorka, who on Saturday returns to the Eighth Step, this time at the nonprofit's new home at Proctors in Schenectady. "That feels to me more like real life. It's one big mess. It's usually not a single, discreet emotion at a time. They're all mixed up. And I've always wanted the songs to reflect that."

Exciting time
Born in New Jersey in 1958, Gorka began playing banjo at an early age, discovering Pete Seeger and then Woody Guthrie while digging into the archives of Sing Out magazine at the local library. But he wouldn't start performing or writing in earnest until he moved to Bethlehem, Pa., to attend Moravian College. It was there that he found Godfrey Daniels, then a new coffeehouse/performance venue that was becoming an integral part of the folk circuit. Gorka went to see the national acts that performed there when he could afford to. He regularly attended the open stage nights, and eventually volunteered as usher, counter worker and soundman. By the early '80s, he was a regular opener for folk's notable names whenever they appeared at Godfrey Daniels. There was Nanci Griffith, Jack Hardy and Bill Morrissey, among others. For a young Gorka, it was an exciting time. Take away Godfrey Daniels, he agreed, and he likely would not have become the artist he became.

"I didn't know of any place like it back home. That's why I stuck around after graduation. I felt like it was my own little slice of Bohemia. That kind of bohemian element in that scene had this sense of possibility," he said. "I got to hang around performers and see the good ones and the not-so-good ones, and really bug the people whose music I liked - ask them about how they did what they did, about what inspired them. People like Stan Rogers and Jack Hardy were some of the first people I heard whose songs seemed like literature come to life, rather than a pop song. The things you heard on the radio or saw on TV paled in comparison to these things I was hearing there."

Making name for himself
And his spot as perennial Godfrey Daniels opener helped him. Hardy invited him to New York to record for his Fast Folk compilations, which were an outgrowth of both Hardy's Fast Folk magazine and his loose Greenwich Village cooperative that also included a young Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin. Meanwhile, in 1984, Nanci Griffith encouraged Gorka to enter Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk competition, which he did. And he won it that year.

But it would take Gorka nearly 10 years of playing open mikes, opening for others and struggling for recognition before he signed his first record contract.

The upside was that he was a veteran by the time he recorded the critically acclaimed "I Know" on the folk-friendly Red House Records in 1987. He jumped to the Windham Hill label shortly thereafter, releasing five albums in seven years there, but has since returned to Red House.

These days, he's preparing to get into the studio to record his 11th album and follow-up to 2006's "Writing in the Margins" and last year's live DVD "The Gypsy Life." The forthcoming album, and perhaps Saturday's live show, will include an unlikely collaboration - with the same Woody Guthrie he admired on the pages of Sing Out magazine while still in his teens.


Finishing Guthrie song

Joining a growing list of artists such as Lou Reed, Dropkick Murphys, Wilco and the Klezmatics, Gorka has taken an unfinished Guthrie song and added his own music to the dustbowl troubadour's lyrics. The quote-unquote collaboration on a song titled "Highway of Light" required a trip to the Guthrie archives in Manhattan, where he worked alongside Nora Guthrie, the folkie's daughter.

"I got to look through a couple of folders of song lyrics," he said. "The Woody Guthrie legend has been strong in my imagination for so long. So it was really fun to see his handwriting, his comments."

Talking about the Guthrie song and how he came to write his part, Gorka offered a glimpse into how his mind works. Asked whether it was daunting to put a melody to a legend's unfinished song, he said he couldn't think about it too much, or he'd be paralyzed by the task.

"One of the things that helps is that if I start early enough in the day when I'm not yet thinking, I'm more likely to come up with something," he said. "The songwriting process happens best when I get out of my own way. I seem to be most productive in the half-dream, half-awake state, before the practical, logical brain takes over."

John Gorka

Where:GE Theatre at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday january 12, 2008