December 28, 1997, John Gorka visited the studios of WDIY-FM, and recorded
an interview with Otto Bost, which was broadcast the following night
on Otto's weekly radio program, "Acoustic
Eclectic." John had just concluded a two-and-a-half month break
from performing (his longest break in eleven years), and had opened
his tour the night before at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem, PA. What
follows is a transcript of the interview.
The broadcast began with John's performance of "CHRISTMAS
Otto: You're listening to "Acoustic Eclectic,"
on WDIY. My name is Otto Bost, and my guest in the studio this evening
is the man named "songwriter of the year" by the Kerrville Music Foundation,
mister John Gorka. Hi, John. Welcome to WDIY.
John: Thank you. It's nice to be here. It's good to be back home.
Otto: You've had a long-time association with
the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, and yet you sing about being from
New Jersey, and you actually live in Minnesota.
John: That's right.
How do you put those puzzle pieces together?
John: Well, I was born and raised in New Jersey. I grew up in Colonia,
New Jersey, and moved to Bethlehem to go to school in 1976. I went to
Moravian College, there on the north side. And I started playing at
the coffeehouses in the school right away, the very first day, even.
They had freshman orientation . . . they had a freshman orientation
coffeehouse that I played at, and I met some of the other people who
played there at that same show. Then there was another guy in the audience
who, uh – I was playing banjo, and this other guy was playing mandolin,
and the guy in the audience was a guitar player, and he knew hundreds
of songs. His name was Doug Anderson, and we – together with Russ Rentler,
the mandolin player, we formed a band called the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band.
It was kind of a bluegrass band, but not a real formal, traditional
Otto: Wasn't Richard Shindell in that band?
John: Yeah, he came, he came later. He was, I think, a year or so –
a year, maybe two years younger than the rest of us, and so he came
in a little bit later, and he became the lead guitar player.
John: Yeah. It's really funny. He's doing really well. He's got three
really good records. He's getting out there.
So, now you're living in Minnesota.
Been there for, what, a couple of years now?
John: Uh, I guess, uh, I'm trying to think – is it two years now? Or
one year? No, I guess it is two years, 'cause I got married last year.
We had a baby this past October. So, yeah . . .
That's wonderful. What's the baby's name?
John: His name's Joseph.
Is he doing all sorts of interesting things these days, or what?
John: He hasn't been doing too much recording or anything, or playing
guitar. Mostly been playing harmonica. Which is good, 'cause he doesn't
have any teeth. Works out well.
Going through all the right bodily functions at the right times?
John: Seems to be the case. Kinda seems to be all my wife and I talk
about, his bodily functions.
(laughs) You've been doing a song . . . you did a song at Godfrey's
the other night, about impending fatherhood.
Tell me about that.
John: It's, uh – I was out in Northern California, kind of on the –
one of my, uh – I'm not sure, let's see . . . I think it was in the
springtime, last spring. My wife had been pregnant a few months at that
point, and I was kind of anticipating what the new life would be like.
I mean, my life, as well as the baby. And I was driving down the central
valley, California, driving south from Chico, and passing through all
these farm fields and orchards, and I passed by this one farmhouse that
had some cypress trees growing along side it. Just the image of these
cypress trees, and the idea of having a family, somehow came together
in my head, and I was moved by the image, because the cypress trees
can be planted close together, 'cause they're – they tend to grow more
vertical than horizontally. Um, so I turned that into a song. I'll play
that for you. Same key as the last one.
performs "CYPRESS TREES"
Wonderful. Wonderful new stuff from John Gorka. That's called "Cypress
John: Yeah. It's, uh – this is, uh – coming back and playing at Godfrey's
. . . I just played at Godfrey's. It was the first time playing since
the baby came, and so it's about two and a half months that I, uh –
I've had off. It was a little scary getting started playing again, but,
uh – but it was fun, and it was the best place to do that. Getting back
into performing at Godfrey's.
Yeah, it's a lot like playing at home, I would guess.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Your latest album was called Between Five and Seven, and I guess since
that album's come out, you've begun to show up on a few compilation
CDs, and stuff like that . . .
John: Yeah, I've been doing some of those things. I've been kind of
obsessed the last couple of years with a home recording kind of idea,
and I've been doing some of that, some of those compilation things,
at home. And that's what I'd like to persue more. But there's also one
coming up, I guess – a Kate Wolf compilation that Nina Gerber, who played
with Kate, is producing. I did a song, I recorded that near Seattle,
I guess, in October, just before coming back home for paternity leave.
And I heard that you recorded one of my favorite traditional songs,
for a Pete Seeger compilation.
John: Yeah, yeah. That's one I did at home, in the living room. That's
a song called "The Water is Wide." That's one of my favorite songs,
too, and it's uh – let's see if I can play it for you. Its, uh – Pete
wrote a verse for it, which is why it's part of the Pete Seeger collection.
Plus, he did that – he's always done that song. I remember I opened
for him once, in Easton, at the State Theatre. I think it was ‘84, and
I remember him playing that, kind of backstage, and hearing him play
that beautiful guitar part he plays. Um, I don't play that part. I tried
to copy that . . . for some reason, I couldn't do it. I could do this
kind of arpeggiated kind of thing, and I did that, but I wasn't able
to um – I don't know, sustain the energy. My pace of it was just too
slow, and it ended up too long, and it started out okay, but would kind
of lose its energy as it went on. But since then, I started trying it
my own way, and was able to get a performance I was real happy with.
So let's see if I can remember how it goes. The Water Is Wide . . .
performs "THE WATER IS WIDE"
You're listening to "Acoustic Eclectic," on WDIY. My guest in the studio
this evening is John Gorka. Wow, I love that song.
John: That's a beautiful song. It's one of my all-time favorites. Otto:
Whew! Magnificently done. John: Aw, thanks.
John, years ago, I know that you were involved with Jack Hardy, up in
New York, in the songwriting workshops that he used to – and still does,
I guess – host up there.
John: Yeah, it's a fairly informal kind of idea of a workshop. It's
mainly more of a social event. People come, and the idea is to bring
new songs, weekly. Bring a new song every week, and have a lot of the
same people come, so that they know what you've done before, and where
you are breaking new ground, and they can offer criticism, or not. It's
one of those things that's fairly informal. People can seek it out,
you know, seek out criticism during the break or something like that,
if there's a break for food, or you know, if somebody has an idea that
could improve the song with a change, or uh . . . So, I really like
the idea. It was fun to be able to – to be a part of that, 'cause there'd
be some really good people who would come fairly regularly. I know David
Massengill would be there pretty regularly, and Jack, and um, some other
people who are really good. Other people would kind of come in every
now and then.
That got you started writing on a regular schedule?
John: Yeah. Jack was the first person I met who wrote songs on a schedule.
I opened for him at Godfrey's in 1979. It was one of the first – it
was the first opening act I did there. I did that with my friend Russ
Rentler, and we went as the Razzy Dazzy Brothers, 'cause it wasn't the
whole Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band. So I didn't do many original songs that
night, I remember, but, uh . . . I remember talking to Jack, and I know
I had been writing for a few years, but I basically waited for inspiration
to strike, and that's how I, how I worked. And that's how I told Jack
I worked, and he said that was kind of a cop-out. If you work at it,
you'll uh, you'll get better faster, even if you throw out three-quarters
of the songs that you, that you write. Just by working at it, you kind
of exercise the writing muscles, and you, you get better, just by sheer
effort, because sometimes you meet inspiration halfway. You didn't know
– you might not know that there was a song there, until you tried. And
so that was a really good approach. That was an exciting kind of idea,
that – a real revelation, that you could write songs that way. You know,
that you could work at it. I knew novelists would get up and write for
six hours, or whatever, or a certain number of pages a day, but I didn't
know songwriters could do that sort of thing. I thought it was, you
know, sort of . . . you're at the mercy of the muse, but it turned out
that, uh – that really helped me, and I set myself on a schedule of
about two songs a month. That's what I've continued to try to persue,
that goal. I don't always make it, but that's what I – I'm kind of starting
in a writing phase again and, uh, I want to see if I can keep up on
I guess with a new baby in the house, the schedule must go out the window
John: Yeah, he's the boss right now, so the idea is, there is really
no routine, and so, you try to get things done when there's kind of
a moment's peace. But there is time, and you just have to be ready to
seize the moment.
Have you got some new songs in mind for your next album?
John: I've got – yeah, I've got a bunch of things that, uh – that I've
written. Now I have to see if they – I'm gonna put them down on tape,
and see how they, how they go together and see what jumps out. Sometimes
that's the – I don't know until I listen back, and then I realize that
a song that I thought might not have been all that strong, when I listen
to it on tape, it actually jumps out at me. It's one of those things
that I try to, uh, try to go into a recording project with more songs
than I could possibly record, and record more songs than I could possibly
fit on a record, then see which ones kind of step forward.
You've changed record labels recently – changed back, I guess.
John: Yeah, back to Red House.
What brought that change about?
John: Well, there was kind of a, a change at the old label, Windham
Hill, and um – a lot of the people that I worked with either left, or
got fired, and uh – so the whole kind of atmosphere changed, and I realized
that it was not a place that I wanted to be, so I got out.
Hmmm. I would guess that Red House is delighted to have you back.
John: Yeah. It's a really nice thing, since I live in Minnesota now.
I really like everybody on the staff, and I can just go there and, uh,
meet with them, or uh . . . Bob Feldman helped me move into my house.
He's the head of the record company. How often does that kind of thing
happen? So, uh, yeah, it's a good . . . Bob and I have been friends
for a long time, so, uh, I think it's gonna be a good, gonna be a good
thing. It was either that, or do it myself. With the technology being
what it is, that's something I'm thinking about, for the future, is
to make records, and seeing as how – I was talking to other people about
this – and putting them up on the internet, just to have it be available
for people to download it if they want to, you know, have it be something
like shareware, that if they want to contribute something to it, do
that, but not really have it be a product. I don't know if that's a
practical thing or not. I think the technology is getting pretty close.
Yeah, the technology exists to do that.
John: Uh-huh. Liquid Audio, you know, I don't know how much expense
it would be to – for my end of things, but if I have a home studio set
up, you know, I would still maybe make CDs to sell the – "hard copies"
of the CDs to sell, I don't know about the distribution. I'm not really
all that interested in the music industry, as much as I am getting –
being able to get the music out there, and, um . . . I'll continue to
play, probably, and tour as long as I'm able, 'cause I enjoy that a
Hey, let's get another song in here, shall we?
John: Okay, let's see, maybe we'll do something in another key. Maybe
I'll do this one. This is a Stan Rogers song. I think this is going
to be on one of those compilations, too. On a radio station in California,
Santa Monica – Howard and Roz Larman's radio show – I did this. I was
doing – I hadn't done this, performed this, in a long time, but uh,
I guess this was recorded in ‘91. This is called "The Lock-Keeper."
performs "THE LOCK-KEEPER"
You're listening to John Gorka, performing in the WDIY studio. That's
a Stan Rogers tune, called "The Lock-Keeper."
John: Yeah. It's one of my favorite songs of his. That line, "my wife
has just given me a son," was going through my head the morning the
boy was born.
I'll bet it was. I remember hearing you play that song, years ago. I'm
glad you've brought it back out again.
John: Yeah, me, too.
Let's see, you're going to be back in this area in a little bit. I wanted
to let people know where you'll be . . .
John is going to be performing in northern New Jersey this Wednesday
night, New Year's Eve.
John: Yeah, part of the First Night celebration, there in Oakland, New
Who else is going to be there, John?
John: Cliff Eberhardt. My friend, Cliff Eberhardt, and, let's see, I
think Lucy Kaplansky is going to be there. I think Vance Gilbert is
going to be there, and Greg Greenway, I guess . . . Cliff and I are
going to be alternating sets. I'm going to do one set, he's going to
do two sets, then I'm going to do another set, in the one place. Everybody
else is in different places, and I think we'll probably all get together
at the end of my set and do a song.
Wow, that sounds like fun. That's in Oakland, New Jersey?
John: Yeah, right off of 287.
And then John's going to be back in the Pennsylvania area. He'll be
back in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, at the Common Ground Coffeehouse,
on February 5th, and then in New Jersey, at Princeton University . .
John: Yeah, at the McCarter Theatre. It's gonna be a show, also, where
Dee Carstensen is going to be playing. I don't know if you've gotten
to hear her. She's a spectacular singer, and she also plays the harp
– not like, the celtic harp, but the full thing. She's a beautiful singer,
as well as a beautiful musician. She's really worth catching on her
All right. That concert in McCarter Theatre will be on March 7th, that's
the date on that. John, can you play one more song before you go?
John: Sure. Let's see, what would be a good song to go on? What's one
that I know? Tricky things about getting started. Maybe I'll do the
"Flying Red Horse" song. I think I know that one. This is a song about
what if one of the flying red horses from the Mobil station should escape.
performs "FLYING RED HORSE"
You're listening to "Acoustic Eclectic," on WDIY. My name is Otto Bost.
My guest in the studio this evening has been John Gorka. John: Yeah,
thanks a lot for having me, Otto. Otto: Thanks for coming by, John.
Please stop by anytime.
John: All right.
to a few dedicated volunteers who have meticulously transcribed this
interview from audio recordings.