Folk’s burning man: guitarist John Gorka

by Glenn BurnSilver

Apr 22, 2011

John Gorka (photo Mike Wittner)...........................................

FAIRBANKS - Folk music comes in two forms: upbeat and hopeful, or dreary and depressing.

John Gorka settled near the top of the latter form long ago, and though he seems to be trying, he hasn’t given up his roost there.

“For one reason or another my songs have that kind of underlying melancholia about them. Maybe it is the place that I write from, or maybe it just comes out that way. It is definitely an element of my sound,” he said during phone interview from his Minnesota home. “It is melancholia, but I think it is hopeful melancholia. ... I don’t know if it is the nature of folk music, but it is true for what I do.”

Yet, underneath his gruff exterior lurks an optimism that resembles folk’s lighter side, a sunny happiness that everything works out in the end, even if a song must travel through hell to get there. This, along with the genre’s unwavering ability to broach any subject, attracted him to the idea that folk was a viable musical outlet

“I started to feel this was an honest path to making music,” he recalled of his early experiences watching folk singers in local coffee shops, particularly the Godfrey Daniels Coffee House in Bethlehem, Pa., where he was a regular and later performed. “The people who were my favorites there were uncompromising (in their approach). It seemed more like literature. I was discovering this world and it seemed like there was more possibilities for songs in this genre than any other I knew. ... It was a chance for more expression.”

Inspired, Gorka picked up an acoustic guitar, established his distinctive, gravelly voice and quickly became one of the pre-eminent folk performers in the United States. His music is direct, honest, brutal at times, and occasionally depressing and painful, like waiting in line at the soup kitchen, only to have it run out of food.

“I am not saying ‘Oh, woe is me.’ But I think there is a solitary spot in all humans.

The times we are living in are lonelier than in the past,” he said. “We maintain an illusion of control in order to get through a day. We need to make these assumptions that things are going to be the way we thought they would be even though we have no way of knowing what’s going to happen.”

In reality, Gorka’s not an unhappy person. He has a nice home in Minnesota shared by a loving family. He just uses the folk platform like so many before him — Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger — to excise his rage and demons in order to invoke some justice or at least find some semblance of inner peace.

“I’d probably be an unhappy person somewhere,” if I didn’t make a living playing music, he added. “Music has been the door to everything positive in my life. ... Music is kind of my salvation, my way out.”

Contact features editor Glenn BurnSilver at 459-7510.

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