Folk musician John Gorka to play
Published March 13, 2015.......By Don Wilcock...........Caffe Lena.
SARATOGA SPRINGS >> John Gorka who plays Caffe Lena Sunday night is a shining light in the new folk movement. To compare the material on his latest album “Bright Side of Down” to traditional folk revival songs is like comparing HBO’s “True Detectives” to a 1960 episode of “Perry Mason.”

Not only do his songs connect on an intimate level with the listener he calls “the receiver,” but they often contain singular lines that taken out of context evoke as much thought as a whole short story. My favorite is this from “High Horse:” “Our memories are pictures with scissors for thoughts.” It’s one of John’s favorites, too.

“I don’t know where that came from, sorry.” Gorka is a very shy and humble guy. “Usually it’s the first line that sparks the song, and then I take it from there. But I don’t exactly know where it’s gonna go and just try if I can to keep the spark going all the way through, but sometimes in the process I stumble on a line that just kinda pops up, and it becomes a favorite line, and hopefully it doesn’t alter the course of the song in a way that I’d have to throw it away.”


John Gorka, a contemporary American folk musician, is set to perform at 7 p.m. Sunday at Caffe Lena at 47 Phila St. in Saratoga Springs. Jos van Vliet photo

To John, a song’s “receiver” is very important as a kind of silent co-writer. He doesn’t consider a song complete until the listener makes it part of their own imagination, their own life. That process can take one of his creations far from where his mind-set was when he first created it. When he wrote the song “I Saw A Stranger in Your Hair” (not on this album) he was imagining someone missing their lover and seeing that person in certain attributes of strangers in the street: “I saw a stranger with your hair/I saw another with your eyes/I heard an angel with your voice/By the way how is my heart/By the way how is my heart?"

A woman in Salt Lake City came up to John and said she liked that song because it reminded her of her son. “That’s one of the first times I started to realize all these songs can be more than I thought they were and made me more able to sing the songs over and over again ’cause it’s kind of a collective thing.”

“Holed Up in Mason City, Iowa” on Bright Side of Down is a favorite of John’s wife. “This was the first song she felt was set here in the upper Midwest. I’m originally from New Jersey, and she thought that it had a more Midwestern sense of place.” The song is about being holed up during a snowstorm in the town where Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper took off in a private plane that crashed and killed them on Feb. 3, 1959. John was only months old when that first tragedy of the rock and roll era happened, but it was the day after this writer’s 15th birthday, and it brought home to me how temporal our relationships can be, whether they be with idols or people close to us. To me as a receiver the image of John shivering at the Big Bopper Diner and the line “In a booth I saw Buddy Holly’s ghost writing to the girl he loved the most” brings up very painful personal memories.

One of the guys John worked with on his album Out of The Valley had been a friend of Buddy Holly’s. “He had a guitar that belonged to Buddy Holly, and I got to play it on a few songs when I made the record. I think it’s one of those things that I’ve come to realize that I think of these people as legends, but to the people that knew them, there’s a very different relationship. John writes some songs through a process he calls intentional neglect. “If I come back a month (after writing the song) and the melody comes back, and the music and the feel come back, then I realize, ‘OK, this might be a real song capable of reaching others.’”

But when the receiver gets involved, “intentional neglect” is forgotten, and the song takes on new meaning. A man from North Carolina who was dying of liver cancer told John that his music really connected with him. “That’s my hope that people can find some use from the song as more than just entertainment.”

    WHAT: John Gorka
WHEN: Sunday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga
TICKETS: $20 518-583-0022

Callout: John Gorka feels his songs are not complete until the receiver makes them part of their own imagination and life.

Folk musician John Gorka hopes that people can find use from his songs as more than just entertainment. (photo: Ann Marsden)

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