Telling Stories, Going Farther



Published: July 9, 1995

AS the stage lights dim to an intimate glow, a man dressed in black steps up to the lone microphone. "This song is about the land of my people," he says gravely. He steps back and strums his guitar softly. A plaintive look crosses his face as he sings, "I'm from New Jersey."

The audience explodes in laughter. John Gorka, a 36-year-old folk singer, flashes a tiny smile, then replaces it with a solemn gaze as he belts out:

I'm from New Jersey
I don't expect too much
If the world ended today
I would adjust.

Speaking before that recent performance, Mr. Gorka, a trim man with untrimmed hair who grew up in Colonia, explained that "I'm From New Jersey" is not simply a joke.

"It's about living in a place that's always described as second-rate," he said. "For some that can be a straitjacket, but for others it can mean the freedom to become whatever you dream." For Mr. Gorka, it meant that a youth from a working-class suburb in Middlesex County could become one of the country's top folk singers. Rolling Stone has called him "the pre-eminent male singer/songwriter of the New Folk movement." He has performed with Peter, Paul and Mary and Mary-Chapin Carpenter. Each of his five albums, including "Out of the Valley" and "Jack's Crows," has met with critical success.
He is booked solid at clubs and festivals through next year. This Wednesday at 7:30 P.M., in a rare New Jersey appearance, he will perform at Flood's Hill at Meadowland Park in South Orange in a free concert.

For all his success, he is a man of contrasts. The dynamic performer is a retiring man offstage. He sings with powerful conviction but speaks haltingly, in a near whisper. His intensely personal and wryly poignant songs about himself and America forge a rare bond with his audience, but he is happiest when he is alone, writing songs. And while he is fiercely ambitious, he will not leave his adopted home, Bethlehem, Pa., for a music capital like New York or Nashville because he fears it would ruin his art. But as he told his life story with a mix of self-deprecating humor and sly irony, it became clear that Mr. Gorka is one of those rare individuals who have succeeded not by resolving the contradictions of their lives but by using those tensions to gain strength.

His rise is a thoroughly modern tale. Traditionally, folk singers were nurtured by their heritage, playing the music of their parents and their forebears. But there was little music in Mr. Gorka's home. His mother "couldn't even whistle," he said. His father, a Polish-American who worked as a printer for the American Tag Company, listened only to polka music on Saturday afternoons. Like many suburban youths, Mr. Gorka and his older brother Cass had their tastes shaped by mass popular culture, the Top 40 hits of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Monkees. Yet when John was 14, he stumbled onto the exotic world of folk music thanks to a television program, "The Beverly Hillbillies."

"I heard that opening theme, the 'Ballad of Jed Clampett' by Flatt and Scruggs, and I fell in love with the banjo," he said.

The next day he went to Korvette's and searched out its only Flatt and Scruggs record. "I thought it was my own discovery, this rich and vibrant world that nobody else knew about," he said. Next, he bought a banjo and later a guitar. With the same singleminded intensity he had applied to collecting rocks and coins and playing soccer (he was named to the all-county team in his senior year), he threw himself into music, practicing up to five hours a day. "I've never done anything halfway," he said. "Whatever it is, I don't so much have to be the best, but the best I can be." This passion for folk and bluegrass music isolated him a bit from his friends at Colonia High School, but when he started performing at school and at parties, it provided him with a satisfying way to reach people. "I could express myself on stage much better than when I was talking," he said. "Performing, I could control what happens. I could make it perfect, or a lot closer to perfect than real life."

But he still didn't think he could make music his life until he enrolled at Moravian College in Bethlehem in 1976. By chance, the fading steel town on the banks of the Lehigh River was home to one of the great folk music coffeehouses in the country, Godfrey Daniels, which attracted top performers from around the nation.
"It was a warm, intimate place," he said, smiling fondly at the memory. "People sat in old church pews and listened, really listened to the music, as the performers swept them through every emotion. It was extremely intense, almost religious."

The club became his second home -- in fact, he still has a set of keys. He sold snacks and records and swept up after shows. He pored over the artists' press kits and sidled up to them after shows to talk about songwriting. He played banjo in a local bluegrass outfit, the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, but seldom performed on his own. He just didn't think he was good enough. "My songs tended to be slow and on the sad side," he said. "You know, a young guy trying to be serious." After graduation in 1980, he stayed in Bethlehem and set a characteristically modest goal: to record an album in five years. During the day he delivered flowers, and at night he played in bands at Godfrey Daniels and nearby restaurants, usually earning a meal and $25 for five hours of music. IN 1981 and 1982 Mr. Gorka made a series of decisions that transformed the course of his career. First, he stopped playing in bands and concentrated on being a solo singer-songwriter. "I realized I was never going to be a great banjo player," he said. "I felt I could best express myself playing and singing my own songs."

He also changed the focus of those songs. "I had always had three subjects," he said with a grin, "me, myself and I. But then I started writing about other people and the world around me, especially the neighborhoods of Bethlehem and character pieces like 'Red Eye and Rose,' about a cowboy whose horse wants to go heaven."

He began traveling to New York and Philadelphia, hanging around clubs for a chance to perform one or two songs on amateur nights. His big break came in 1984 when he won one of folk music's most prestigious talent searches, the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival's New Folk Award. The success brought the confidence he had lacked. "People I knew had always liked my songs, but here was approval from knowledgeable strangers," he said. "That's when I first thought my songs could travel farther, farther than I had ever thought."

Right on schedule, five years after graduation, he took his life savings -- $6,000 -- to Nashville, rented a studio and tried to record an album, but failed. "The tapes were unusable," he said. "They sounded awful. I was crushed." But as fate would have it, he met a New Jerseyan, William S. Kollar of Woodbridge, who had a professional recording studio in his home. In Mr. Kollar's basement they made his first album, titled "I Know," which was released in 1987. The album sold only 5,000 copies, but it caught the attention of Windham Hill Records, a label synonymous with New Age music that was looking to diversify.He has produced four albums for Windham Hill with steadily increasing sales. His latest record, "Out of the Valley," has sold 70,000 copies, and a video for the song "Good Noise" has been played on the Nashville Network.

Mr. Gorka said he wanted to make it "as big as I can," but on his own terms. "A lot people say I should leave Bethlehem for Nashville, New York or L.A.," he said. "But I have seen a lot of talented people get sucked down in that world. They lose their uniqueness, their individual voice, trying to be commercial. I wouldn't want that to happen to me." He divides what little free time he has between Bethlehem and Minneapolis, where his girlfriend lives. He is on the road about 200 days a year, performing and living by himself. "There's a lot of freedom to it," he said. "I stop when I want, eat when I want and stay where I want. When I travel with other players, I miss being by myself."

Isn't it lonely?
"Sometimes," he said. "When I start to unravel, I go to malls, a familiar place in every different town. I go into the Radio Shack and cool out, but only for 20 or 30 minutes. Any longer and it gets too weird. "Sometimes when I'm there, people recognize me. They say, 'Has anyone ever told you you look like John Gorka?' I tell them yeah, all the time. If they ask me if I'm him, then I say sure; otherwise, I just move on." Dueling Anthems?

John Gorka says long after he had wrote "I'm From New Jersey," "Some people told me some guy had written a song with the same title and was trying to get it named the official state song." Mr. Gorka, whose wicked tribute appears on his fifth album, "Jack's Crow." said "It would be kind of a kick if they made both of them the state anthem."

The author of the other "I'm From New Jersey" hotly disagrees. Joseph (Red) Mascara, a Phillipsburg resident who has spent the last 34 years tirelessly lobbying to have his song named the state anthem, says he has never heard of Mr. Gorka. "I have proved my song's worth through all the years," said Mr. Mascara. "Who is this guy? What's his song?"


"I'm From New Jersey"
By Joseph "(Red)" Mascara

I know of a state that's a perfect playland,
With white sandy beaches by the sea;
With fun-filled mountains, lakes and parks
And folks with hospitality.
With historic towns where battles were fought,
And Presidents have made their home;
It's called New Jersey and I toast and tout it,
Wherever I may roam.
'Cause I'm from New Jersey and I'm proud about it,
I love the Garden State.
I'm from New Jersey and I want to shout it,
I think it's simply great.
All of the other states throughout the nation,
May mean a lot to some;
But I wouldn't want another, Jersey is like no other,
I'm glad that's where I'm from.

(Published by Sands Music Corporation)



"I'm From New Jersey"
By John Gorka
I'm from New Jersey
I don't expect too much
If the world ended today
I would adjust
I'm from New Jersey
No I don't talk that way
I watched too much TV
When I was young
I'm from New Jersey
It's not like Texas
There is no mystery
I can't pretend
I'm from New Jersey
It's like Ohio
But even more so
Imagine that
New Jersey people
They will surprise you
Cause they're not expected
To do too much
They will try harder
They may go further
Cause they never think
That they are good enough

(Used by permission. All words and music
by John Gorka. Blues Palace Music/ASCAP.)