John Gorka: just a little attention is enough
by Seth Rogovoy
(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Feb. 28, 1997)

-- Had John Gorka not stumbled upon contemporary-folk music at a coffeehouse not far from his college campus, he "probably would have become some kind of a nerd-type," says the singer-songwriter. "I think I'd probably be cut out for that, maybe a computer-type nerd," said Gorka in a recent phone interview from his home in Minneapolis. "I'm not really into computers, but I think I could see myself devoted to it. Something that's kind of a world unto itself, which is I guess what writing songs is -- kind of like its own world.

" Fortunately for his fans and the contemporary-folk world, Gorka chose music over computers, and in so doing breathed new life into the genre as one of the leading exponents of "new-folk," the contemporary, acoustic update of the '70s-era, folk-rock singer- songwriter movement.

Gorka will perform a selection of his carefully-crafted, modern folk songs tonight at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown at 8, when he kicks off the Clark's "Four Fridays of Folk" series, presented in connection with the museum's folk-art exhibition, "A Passion for the Past: The Collection of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little at Cogswell's Grant." Doors open at 7; tickets are general admission. Light refreshments will be on sale at the cafe before the performance and during intermission. For more information or to reserve tickets call 458-2303 x. 505.

Gorka has been involved with music for nearly 20 years, since he first discovered Godfrey Daniels, an Iron Horse-style nightspot near Moravian College in Bethlehem, Penna., where he was an undergraduate. He served a sort of unofficial apprenticeship there, helping the owner set the place up, working his way through the ranks as sound man, emcee and opening act. Mainly he used the time to study the performers, people like Nanci Griffith, Jack Hardy, Claudia Schmidt and Stan Rogers. "I knew I wanted to play music, but I didn't know how I could go about it," said the soft-spoken New Jersey native. "But there I saw people who were doing exactly what I wanted to do, travel around and play music, whether or not there was a huge, commercial kind of audience."

In the early- to mid-'80s, Gorka was a part of the thriving New York folk scene centered around the Speakeasy nightclub and Fast Folk Musical Magazine. By 1987, his first album, "I Know," came out on Greg Brown's Red House label, and within a few years Gorka was a mainstay of Windham Hill's prestigious High Street songwrter's imprint, along with Patty Larkin and Cliff Eberhardt.

His most recent album, the aptly-titled "Between Five and Seven" (High Street) -- it's his sixth -- came out last summer. It features a dozen of his finely-honed, original compositions, with accompaniment by vocalists Jennifer Kimball (ex- of The Story) and Lucy Kaplansky, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, former Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks, and members of Mary Chapin Carpenter's band.

Gorka said that over the years he has learned to let his songs -- often concise character sketches or slices of small-town Americana -- dictate their form. "I think maybe I'm more willing to let the song be what it wants to be rather than trying to make it into something that it's not," he said. "If what I'm trying to do with a song is not working, I realize it's not the song's problem but my own."

For many years now a fixture on the folk circuit at clubs and festivals -- the turning point was perhaps winning the New Folk Award at the 1984 Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas -- Gorka has labored intensively to maintain his intimate, down-to-earth style that is his calling card. This isn't always easy when life primarily consists of non-stop touring, travelling by car and airplane, staying in hotels and performing 150 shows a year. After years of this sort of thing, many artists find themselves writing songs about what a drag it is to be a working musician. "I think I do write songs about being a musician," said Gorka, "but I also consider that the kinds of things that I'm going through as a musician other people are going through in their lines of work. I don't think any of the kinds of pressures or problems that I have to deal with with the business end of things separate me. I think it makes me more connected with people who are facing the same kinds of pressures."

Last year Gorka played about 100 shows, which were fewer than his usual 125 to 150. "I got married last September, so there was time taken off to prepare for that," he said. "I still love to play, but I think if I could keep it around 100 shows a year I'd be happy." While he is at the top of the heap of the new-folk singer- songwriters -- he and Patty Larkin, both of whom have often shared the stage at the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in nearby Hillsdale, N.Y., are widely considered the "king" and "queen" of the genre -- Gorka is hardly a household name along the lines of James Taylor, perhaps the quintessential role-model for the new-folk singer- songwriters.

But the gentle-voiced baritone is not complaining about his relative obscurity. "I kind of like the level that I'm at commercially speaking, because people come to the shows and I can do good shows but people don't really bother me," said Gorka. "I like this level, where I can work at getting better as an artist but I don't have to deal with being a celebrity. I think that seems to be just the right kind of balance. "I like a little bit of attention, I think, but I don't need much more than what I've got."

This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Feb. 27, 1997.
Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1997. All rights reserved.