A Walk With Gorka
CD review in FolkWax
A relationship that became a marriage a decade ago and witnessed the protagonists collaborating on John Gorka's 2003 outing Old Futures Gone, finds them quadrupling that head count on Writing In The Margins. I'm talking, of course, about songs penned by John and his wife, Laurie Allman. As a features writer, her expertise lies in researching and reporting on environmental issues, even proposing solutions. Here, their words focus on the broad spectrum of day-to-day life.
The album opens with a couple of the aforementioned co-writes, "Chance Of Rain" and "Broken Place." On the former, the mellow, fingerpicked melody that supports the verses picks up the pace on the chorus, as John (supported by backing vocalist Alice Peacock) compares the prospect of rain with the possibility of a person finding lasting love. Toward the close, Gorka declares, "Each day is an act of faith," concluding that "the heart is not a simple place." It's the first of four tracks where Gorka is supported by the angelic voice of Lucy Kaplansky.
Early in his career, Gorka displayed a talent for penning off-kilter love songs. For example, I recall my circa-1990 introduction to his music via "I Saw A Stranger With Your Hair." His love songs are still charming, though they're lyrically less unconventional these days, and vignettes here include the shuffle-paced "Satellites," to which Kaplansky adds her voice. "Arm's Length" opens with "Life is one big show no one rehearses" and later states that "kindness is not weakness/Meanness is not strength." The narrator on the title cut is a soldier serving in an unnamed conflict, and the song explores his mindset (and the events of that day) as he composes a letter to loved ones at home. "Bluer State," another collaboration between Laurie and John, reflects on the passage of time in relation to the cycle of finding and losing love, and finding and losing friends (in both instances, possibly due to their passing).
The tender "Snow Don't Fall" made its debut on The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Due to its engaging simplicity it remains as fresh as the day it was written three and a half decades ago, and Gorka is joined vocally on the cut by Nanci Griffith.
The Red House compilation The FolkScene Collection From The Heart Of Studio A (1998) — the first of three such compilations the label has released — featured Gorka's rendition of "The Lock Keeper," dated June 1991. Fifteen years later John has cut a studio version of the song. Penned by the late great Stan Rogers, it appeared on the Canadian's posthumous release From Fresh Water (1984). As the lyric unfolds, the listener is party to a conversation between a lock keeper and a passing bargeman, in which each attests to "the rich rewards" of their chosen career.
Penned with Laurie, "I Miss Everyone" finds Gorka delivering a breathless two-stepping Country number. On the rear page of the The Company You Keep (2001) liner booklet, John wrote, "This record is dedicated to Pop Staples." (Pops Staples died from complications after suffering a concussion in December 2000. He was 85.) Segue to the 2005 Appel Farms Festival where Folk DJ Gene Shay introduced Gorka to Pops' daughter, Mavis Staples. Gorka told Mavis, "When you sing you make the world a better place," and she replied, "That sounds like a song." From acorns mighty oaks sometimes grow, and John duly penned the R&B-inspired "When You Sing."
On "Road Of Good Intentions," Gorka slowly but purposefully questions the sanity of America's current foreign policy. Verse two closes with "But there's more fiction out of Washington/Than out of Hollywood," and the penultimate verse highlights the immemorial sacrifice: "And the soldiers and their families/With life and limb they pay/While the ones who sent them marching/Get to dance the night away." As for the chorus, the closing lines measure the debt as well as the heartache: "The price revealed in stories/Too short, too sad to tell."
On Writing In The Margins, John and Laurie come up with a number of what Guy Clark calls "keepers." That said, can anyone explain the album closer, "Unblindfold The Referee"?
Arthur Wood is a founding editor of FolkWax