“If you’ve just heard the records, you might think I’m a really sad, somber . . . depressed guy.”
In fact, John Gorka has perhaps mastered knowing when to be serious, even somber, and when jocularity is called for — in both his music and his life. “There’s definitely some of that somber stuff in the music, and that’s okay. But, as someone once said to me, ‘You can take what you do seriously; just don’t take yourself too seriously.'”
So it is for Gorka. His live performances are a conversation, with music sometimes serving as description or explanation, other times as punctuation. Like a conversation, the shift from humor into pensive — and yes, at times, even somber — discourse is natural, sometimes with Gorka’s astute and dry wit standing on its own (“This one is off the one I released back in ’06; 2006, that is. Most of my records were released in the late 1900s”) while other times it serves as a pointed set-up for the thoughtful reflection about to follow in song (leading into his autobiographical lyric, “Ignorance and Privilege,” he commented that it might also apply to one of our recent governmental leaders who, as someone else has noted, “was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple.”)
His eleventh release, So Dark You See (November 2009), continues this trend that now reaches into a fourth decade: his peculiar mixture of story-telling, observation, humor, and self-description. “I think of this as a little folk festival,” he says, referring to the fact that the disc draws in a breadth of voice and influence from the folk world, integrating the poetry of William Stafford and Robert Burns, the music of Michael Smith, and even commentary by Utah Phillips with the musicality of Gorka and fellow musicians Lucy Kaplansky, Michael Manring, and others. “There’s not just my own voice in there, but several others.” “Music with different voices, different styles, and covering multiple generations like a good folk festival will do.” “It’s from the world I come from — this folk world I got to be introduced to in the late 70s in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”
This blend — humor and observation, story-telling and self-description, his own voice with the presence and influence of others — is found on all of his CDs, though differently on each. One can almost trace the course of Gorka’s life through his music, from his time as the house opener for the Godfrey Daniels coffeehouse in Bethelehem, Pennsylvania, through his sometimes-frustrating dating life, into a season wherein he settles into both his musical career and his family life, and into the maturing years of parenthood and concerns about the changing world around him. “Somewhere along the way — on Temporary Road with ‘Gravyland’
— I felt like I get to live my dream, playing music for a living, and anything else is gravy.”
Though self-reflective, Gorka’s music is resonant with many. “Even though I know that in certain songs I’m writing about my life, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m part of a much larger pattern I share with many more people,” he says. “The strength of what I do comes from what I have in common from other people.”
Recognizing this, his songs often embody a prophetic voice, though without presumption. “Instead of addressing the topical stuff, I try to go to that aspect of human nature where all of these problems come from. Those are the things that don’t seem to change. They may be inspired by a particular event or person or persons, but I try not to have it be only about that, because that’s going to go by, and there will be new versions of the same types of activities, in new guises and with new faces.”
In more recent years, those new guises have challenged Gorka to voice serious thoughts about tragic events and circumstances. “I had played at the World Trade Center Plaza on August 29 , just 13 days before [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] happened. They had a stage set up there, and the crew that I had worked with were there that morning. They all got out okay — but my friend Jack Hardy lost his brother… so many people worked in New York City but they lived in New Jersey and Long Island, so it affected people where I lived and grew up.”
That loss — and the pain of other losses in life — is fitting for a folk musician to speak to, Gorka thinks. “There used to be a time when popular music addressed adults, before it became totally youth-oriented. That’s what I’m trying to do… to write for people, grown up, who have been through some hard times and know what it’s like to love and to lose.”
Even in the loss, though, Gorka is mindful of the love that marks life and maturity. “A lot of my early songs were a young man’s songs… these are looking at life from an older man’s perspective, you know: when you start to lose people — when you start to lose your heroes and champions, and your family and even friends your own age. So that sense of loss — that’s depicted on the cover — is a part of what this is about. I think loss is the shadow that love casts.”
Some of Gorka’s recent songs have taken this approach with regard to war, including “Where No Monument Stands” and “Live By the Sword” from So Dark You See. Though he would not describe himself as a pacifist (“I’m not there yet!”), Gorka values the voice and perspective that they offer. “The best war is the war that never happens. I think that’s the message of the pacifists: not that there is not going to be conflict, but there are other ways to resolve conflict before it comes to the point where people are going to war with each other.”
Gorka’s music isn’t exclusively somber or even always weighty; through the years, he has put a punchline to aging (people my age have started looking gross…), found humor in the trials of parenthood (he looks like an angel when he’s sleeping, but he looks like Charles Bronson when he cries) and even added a lightness to his observations about crime and punishment (they built the prison by the freeway, just to rub it in). The new CD occasionally includes similarly pithy wit (live by the sword, you die of old age).
Also common to Gorka’s CDs are pieces that, while absent of his distinctive wit, are neither somber nor oppressive, but simply the sort of reflection that causes the listener to take notice. From the personal (Night is a woman who embraces me; I am never lonely in her arms) to the objective (They’re building houses in the fields between the towns), from the political (I’m running for my life here out on the campaign trail) to the cultural (on Elvis: He was born a man, he died a myth — the man part left and the rest stayed with), Gorka’s watching eye has an able companion in his poetic artistry. Again, So Dark You See includes this side of Gorka, as well (I was born to privilege that I did not see… didn’t know it, but my way was paid).
Much of Gorka’s music has taken shape in the context of the rich friendships he has maintained with artistic companions such as Lucy Kaplansky, Cliff Eberhardt, Dar Williams, Michael Manring, and others. “That’s one of the most fun things — the people that I’ve gotten to meet through this music.” These friends have taken a supporting role on many of Gorka’s albums, and he on theirs. Now, he says, a collaborative effort is in the works. “I’m going to do a project with Lucy and Eliza [Gilkyson] that should come out later this year,” he says. “We’re calling ourselves ‘Red Horse.’ The harmonies and voices will be the focal point.”
John Gorka can become an artistic companion to the committed listener, as well. In his levity or in his gravity (or in both), his musical style and observant writing are resonant with familiarity. In the end he hopes that, whether in spite of his more sober side or because of it, listeners will give his concerts a chance. “They might like my show more than they thought they would.”