It’s a dilemma recognized by John Gorka, a widely respected singer-songwriter who has been making music seriously since the early 1980s and released his first album, “I Know,” in 1987. Since then, much has been made in the press about how he started making a name for himself while still attending Moravian College in eastern Pennsylvania, becoming the darling of local coffeehouse Godfrey Daniels. At the time, the 1970s singer-songwriter movement had long since withered and gone underground, MTV was decimating live music in clubs across the country, and contemporaries like Shawn Colvin and Patty Larkin had yet to impress the mainstream. Nothing on the horizon indicated commercial promise for singer-songwriters.
“It was a healthy time for the music,” Gorka recalls. “Maybe not so much for the music business [side], but I think it was a good thing for the music itself.”
Regional popularity plus his 1984 New Folk Award win at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas — not to mention his emotive baritone and soulful stud muffin looks — boosted Gorka’s professional profile.
His career seemed to solidify fairly quickly with tours and deals with Red House Records and Windham Hill. Despite outward appearances, however, it was not easy, and he empathizes with artists starting out now.
“I got out of school in 1980 and they’re saying it’s the worst unemployment [now] since 1983,” he says. “That was my time. The thing is not to take it personally, to concentrate on the music. I always think of something Jackson Browne said in ‘Running on Empty’: you’ve ‘gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive’ and ‘[try] not to confuse it with what you do to survive.’”He laments that “since music can be acquired for free, it seems more disposable now.” But he also finds hope in how YouTube and file sharing are exposing people to new music they would never otherwise hear.
“These are unusually hard times,” he says. “I came up at a time when there were record companies that helped you get known. People can create records and distribute them on their own [now] — but if nobody knows who they are or nobody gets to hear them, it’s still a struggle.
This Friday Gorka will headline a concert at Neighborhood Church, the home for the late Ron Stockfleth’s Acoustic Music Series throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. It is the first in what organizers hope will be a series of concerts that re-establish the church as a prime acoustic venue.
Gorka’s currently promoting his new album, “So Dark You See,” a thoughtful collection that includes covers of folk legend Utah Phillips’ “I Think of You” and the blues standard “Trouble in Mind.” “Where No Monuments Stand,” is featured in the short film “Every War Has Two Losers,” extends Gorka’s tradition of penning songs about soldiers.
“My dad was a World War II Marine,” Gorka explains, “and I think there’s some connection there, trying to understand what a soldier goes through and the effects of war. … It almost seems like world wars have faded [into] the background a little more. I came after the Vietnam era, when the idea of going to war had become so unthinkable. That it’s become so commonplace now is disturbing.
” Whether writing about soldiers, families or farmers in default, the hallmark of Gorka’s songs is their humanity. “If you go deep enough you get closer to the universal bone,” he says.
“What’s important is what you have in common with others, and even though it might be a sad or a sorrowful song, that has value in it because every song is an act of hope. And your song about a broken heart might make someone else feel less lonely and less like a misfit.”