Photo: Ira Hantz
Folk music: Whether you laugh or cry, John Gorka’s songs still
John Gorka has heard of the episode of The Simpsons where Jackson Browne shows up to sing at the surprise birthday party for Homer’s wife, Marge. Browne announces that he’ll play songs from his new album, to which the crowd lets out a loud, collective groan.
Gorka notes that Neil Diamond once played Royal Albert Hall in London, where he devoted an entire set to new material — and got booed.
Now a 55-year-old father of two teenagers, Gorka has a new album coming out in February, which is good news, because all of Gorka’s albums are good. But when he plays Saturday night at the Jefferson Freedom Cafe in Fort Worth, he expects to encounter what he does everyplace else: People will want to hear Gorka songs they learned to love in the past.
He heard of someone once telling Garth Brooks that we’re entering an era in music “where people will be coming out not for what you’re doing but for what you did,” to which Gorka can relate.
“I’m pretty much the same way,” he says. “I want to hear songs that are my favorites, too. It’s OK to have some new things in there, but I also like to hear the familiar stuff. Most of the time, new stuff won’t have nearly the impact that the familiar stuff does.”
Hearing people shout out requests for songs he wrote years ago is something he enjoys, whether it happens in Fort Worth or the Netherlands, where he opens a tour Dec. 12 and where, like other American performers, he’s immensely popular.
Gorka’s most beloved songs are an enticing mixture guaranteed to make you laugh or cry. The former include “I’m From New Jersey” and “People My Age,” the first line of which pretty much says it all: “People my age have started looking gross.” He also hears frequent requests for such poignant antiwar ballads as “Let Them In” and “Temporary Road” and for a longtime favorite, “I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair,” an expression of longing that in recent years has brought unexpected reactions.
He wrote it quite some time ago, about a woman “I was trying to get to know better. But just last weekend in Ashland, Va., a couple came up to me and said the song made them think of their son, who died of leukemia 10 years ago. When people tell me that, I see that the songs are bigger than I intended. So, it makes them easier to sing again and again. It’s not just about me.”
Gorka grew up listening to John Prine, Steve Goodman, Dave Van Ronk and Stan Rogers, and now a new generation of performers is listening to him. He won the New Folk award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1984, the same prize won in 2011 by Grace Pettis, who’s part of a generation of women in their 20s now storming the coffeehouse circuit.
Gorka is encouraged to see the new generation seizing the moment at the same venues he plays. As with Grace Pettis, who performs at Uncle Calvin’s Coffeehouse in Dallas on Friday night, he saw his own career shaped dramatically by the New Folk award he won at Kerrville nearly 30 years ago.
It made him think, for the first time, “that even people who didn’t know me would like my songs. That was a very encouraging thing. It made me think that maybe I can reach more people than I ever thought I could.”
a bold new era in more ways than one. Gorka marveled at the recent announcement
by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of amazon.com, that his company may begin using
drones to deliver its packages, which could include John Gorka CDs.
“I like that better than downloading them,” he says with a laugh. “Nothing
against iTunes, but I kind of like the idea of music coming by a drone.”
Plan your life
Gorka will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Jefferson Freedom Cafe,
1959 Sandy Lane, Fort Worth. Amilia Spicer opens. $20, $25 at the door.