For Gorka, ‘folk' is a wide-reaching umbrella: Singer playing Blue Moon Coffeehouse

By JIM VOREL - H&R Staff Writer
Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2010 4:00 pm

© Copyright 2010,


BLOOMINGTON - John Gorka has very little left to prove.

He's been playing the guitar for 37 years, touring for 23, and has released 13 albums and a DVD documentary. Rolling Stone called him "the preeminent male singer-songwriter of the new folk movement."

On Saturday, he returns to the site of several of his past shows, the Blue Moon Coffeehouse.

At this point, he's not trying to make fans. He continues to tour for the love of the music, and for the feeling he gets playing in coffeehouses to new crowds in new places.

Gorka is also promoting his most recent album, the 2009 release "So Dark You See," released with little fanfare and sold mostly in ones and twos at live shows, which Gorka has always seen as his lifeblood.

"Most of my living comes from live shows and touring," he said. "I don't think I'll ever stop as long as I'm healthy. Traveling all the time can be challenging, but I love seeing new places. There's still quite a few places in this country I haven't been."

At 52, Gorka has performed at many more venues than most artists ever will. He thinks of his new album as a self-contained folk festival that samples his experiences with different musicians, genres and locales.

"There's a number of different lyrical voices in this album," he said. "There are a few songs that I put music to existing lyrics. There are a few covers of singers who were influential to me. It highlights different voices, different styles and different generations." The album's overall effect, he said, sounds like walking around the Philadelphia Folk Festival for a day.

Gorka's rich baritone singing voice and intense, emotional lyricism have set him apart from other male folk singers since his debut album, "I Know," in 1987. He was inspired as a young singer by Canadian folk legend Stan Rogers, whose baritone voice resembled Gorka's. He recalls seeing Rogers perform as a young man at the countercultural Godfrey Daniels Coffeehouse in Pennsylvania.

"He had such a big voice," Gorka said. "It was commanding whether he was singing or just speaking. You could hear him anywhere in a 2,000-seat auditorium without a microphone. He's one of my heroes."

Rogers was killed in 1983 at the age of 33 in the airplane disaster of Air Canada Flight 797. Gorka covers Roger's song "Lockkeeper" in his 2006 album "Writing in the Margins" as a tribute. He said he has tried to invest his songs with the same emotion and power as Rogers.

Despite a long, successful career, Gorka never had expectations or hopes of becoming a popular music star or scoring a crossover hit.

"I told myself that I wanted to go as far as I could without having to change what I do," Gorka said. "I've always figured that if I ever scored a big hit, it would be something of a fluke."

He never did achieve a chart-topping single or platinum album, but Gorka has done pretty well for himself. His music videos have appeared on television networks like CMT and TNN. He's played guitar fests, country fests, blues and roots music fests. In a post-record-store world, he finds himself meeting new, young fans at shows who discovered his music online at Internet radio sites such as

As a member of an older musical movement, he has had to adjust to the new ideas put forth about musical distribution by Internet communities.

"It's a tremendous thing," Gorka said. "These communities are influencing what young musicians are playing and what music is becoming popular. You can now hear all sorts of stuff online that you would never have heard anywhere else. Who knows what's going to happen from here."

Gorka sees the online music community as the modern incarnation of the countercultural coffeehouses he played as a young man. They contain the same "little slice of Bohemia" that inspired him as a young musician to realize that there was more to music than pop standards.

The singer's live shows have been the heart and soul of his music for 23 years. He had a specific message for those who have heard his music before but have never been to a live show:

"If people only know me from records, they have an incomplete impression of what a show will be like. Those people will probably have a lot more fun than they think they will. Trust me."

And although he may fall under the wide-reaching umbrella of "folk" music, Gorka simply plays what he feels and allows others to worry about categorizing his music. He thinks of his music as "not traditional folk, but more than simple entertainment." He wants his music to affect people in a profound way.

"A live show is more personal than taking requests or hawking an album," Gorka said. "I want my music to be a source of strength and not just a pleasant sound."

WHO: John Gorka.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 27.
WHERE: Blue Moon Coffeehouse, Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington.
TICKETS: $10, available from The Garlic Press, 108 W. North St., Normal, or by calling (309) 556-3815.
ON THE WEB:|421-7973