John Gorka has been writing songs since he was a Moravian College kid hanging out on the south side of Bethlehem, listening to the greats who came through Godfrey Daniels, the then-fledgling coffeehouse and folkie hangout.
Now, he’s well down the road, 30 years and a dozen albums into the gypsy life. That’s a lot of miles, a lot of songs, and lot of performances. But the bottom line, he says, is he continues to enjoy the journey.
“I think it is still fun. Sometimes it’s more fun than it ever was,” he says from his home in Minnesota, where he’s lived for 20 years. “I’m glad to have work. I like to play. The songwriting is…my favorite place to be is still in the middle of a song. I’ve got something going. I know there’s something there. I need to tend to it, spend some time with it, and get out of the way.”
He’s gotten out of the way often enough to produce some of the enduring folk albums of the last 25 years. “Land of the Bottom Line,” his second album was the first that earned him notice in 1990 with songs like “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair,” “the title cut and the memorable “Full of Life” with the signature line, “Life is full of disappointments. Yes, and I am full of life.” He continued on a roll with “Jack’s Crows,” Temporary Road,” “So Dark You See” and others.
Gorka brings his incisive folk to the Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library on Saturday, Nov. 14, for a performance hosted by the Tidewater Friends of Acoustic Music.
Count on more than a few memorable lines. “There are more wrong ways than right; there are more right ways than one,” he sings on his latest, “Bright Side of Down.”
Don’t worry, longtime Gorka fans, the word bright in the title doesn’t mean he’s gone soft. “Coupled with down,” he says, “bright” is ok.
There are a few bits of whimsy from “Honeybee” to “Mind to Think” to “Don’t Judge a Lie.”
“More than One,” he adds, is the “the kind of advice I would give myself if I were the type of person who would listen to advice.”
He changed things up a bit on this one, taking his time, recording over a year. “I’d do a song, then listen, and see how it held up over time, to see if the song itself was finished and also if the performance did it justice,” he says.
He didn’t want pressure on the process. He didn’t want to complete a song in a day or two. “I’ve done that. That works sometimes,” he says. “But in this case I wanted to see how the songs would feel after I got away from the initial writing and performance.”
Gorka grew up in New Jersey (“I’m from New Jersey; I don’t expect too much. If the world ended today, I would adjust.”). He spent 20 years in Pennsylvania, including college at Moravian. Now, he’s spent 20 years in Minnesota.
“My wife is from Minnesota and she thought this record reflected living here more than any other project I’ve done,” he adds. “There seemed to be sort of a winter theme, references to winter in a number of the songs that held things together. I was using winter not just in the literal sense, but also as a metaphor, as an older folk singer.”
He’s worked with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith, John Jennings, Ani DiFranco, and Eliza Gilkyson. Working with Gilkyson recently at a song school got him back into songwriting mode.
“I generally don’t start another project until I forget how much work the last one was,” he says. “Then I can think about it.”
But a song school in June got him back into the process. “It made me try to put into words what I do without really thinking about it, trying to describe to others the things that have worked for me and the things that might help them,” he says. “That was a nice spark, just to be around people working on songs, to be in the middle of the process.”
His songs, he says replying to a prompt, change in meaning over time. “It seems like even if I sing the lyrics exactly the same way the world changes it and it means something different. A line jumps out at you that you didn’t see before.”
He’s been doing “Where the Bottles Break” from his 1991 album, “Jack’s Crows,” for a long time. “Recently with the election process going on, suddenly Donald WhatHisName, that’s what I call him in the song, because I figure what’s the best way to disrespect him is not to mention his name. He singlehandedly kept that song alive.”
Buy low, sell high
You get rich and you still die
Money talks, people jump
Ask how high low life Donald what’s his name
And who cares?
I don’t wanna know what his girlfriend doesn’t wear
Its a shame that the people at work
Wanna hear about this kind of jerk
There are certain songs he still plays, songs like “I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair,” that change in meaning because of the audience.
“One of the ways it’s kept alive is people come up to me and tell me how much the song has meant to them,” he adds. “I remember a woman came up to me in Salt Lake City, Utah, and said that song reminded me of her son, who had died. When people tell me what the song meant to them or how they took it, it makes the song bigger for me. It makes it easier to sing night after night. It’s not just mine now. It’s kind of a shared thing.”
Performing live has never been Gorka’s favorite thing, but he’s tamed the demon and made it part of the act. “I was always drawn to it, but never all that comfortable doing it,” he says of performing. “It seems like I’ve come to terms with my own discomfort. Not to try to hide it, but put that in the story. It’s inevitable. They’re going to figure it out anyway, so I just try to be up front about it. “
Growing up in New Jersey, he listened the The Beatles and Elvis, then got into Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe, anything with a banjo. He moved on to James Taylor, Janis Ian then “later any singer/songwriter with a J in the name.” Joni Mitchel. Judy Collins. Joan Baez. Jackson Browne. John Prine.
Lately, he’s been listening to an old Band album, “Jericho,” as well as The Staple Singers and the posthumous Pops Staples solo album.
At Godfrey Daniels, Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers was a favorite. Gorka was the MC one night when he played. “He never know I played music,” Gorka says. “I was just kind of a guy hanging out, bugging him, asking him questions and asking for songs. “
Gorka went on to embrace the songs of Utah Phillips, Claudia Schmidt, Eric Andersen, and Tim Hardin, members of the folk canon.
What songs define him? He has a hard time restricting the list for three.
In the order, he listed them, they are: “I’m from New Jersey,” “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair,” “The Gypsy Life,” and maybe “Semper Fi,” about his dad. He’d have to do something from the new record, too, of course.
“It’s hard to keep it to four,” he says. “Maybe I would talk less.”
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