January 10, 2006
What a Way to Make a Living
by Jim Newsom
from New Jersey
John Gorka hasn’t actually lived in Jersey for nearly 30 years. In fact, he’s now a Minnesotan. But his songwriting sensibilities still reflect his Garden State upbringing as well as the twenty years he subsequently spent in eastern Pennsylvania. Saturday night, he’ll share some of those songs in concert at the Chrysler Museum’s Kaufman Theatre.“I was born in Newark,” he told me the week after Christmas, “and I grew up in a suburb called Colonia, about twenty minutes away. My father worked for the American Tag Company, a factory that printed tags and labels. He ran a printing press there. I was the first person in my family to go to college---My father went after World War II on the GI Bill to learn to run the printing press and my mother could do drafting before she was married, but once they got married I don’t think my dad wanted her to work.
“I remember, though it was a blue collar job, my dad’s work clothes were gray!”
While his older brother was a rock-n-roller, John fell in love with a different sound: “The first kind of music I really got interested in was bluegrass---Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe. I wanted to be a banjo player. I loved the sound of a banjo, anything that had banjo on it, and that eventually led me into the other kinds of acoustic music, singer-songwriter records that had banjo on it. I started writing songs and playing guitar about six months after picking up the banjo when I was fourteen.“Around that time, ‘Dueling Banjos’ was all over the radio and on TV; and I loved seeing Flatt & Scruggs on The Beverly Hillbillies. The first music concert I ever went to see was at the Asbury Park Music Hall in 1974 or ’75, and it was the Earl Scruggs Review.”
After growing up in the urban environs of northeastern New Jersey, Gorka opted to continue his education at Moravian College, a small liberal arts school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
“I played soccer in high school,” he remembered, “There was a guy on the soccer team who was going there and he said it was a good school. It was 65 miles from home, so it was far enough to be away but not too far. I was also considering Rutgers, but I liked the size of Moravian. It was smaller than my high school, about 1200 students.
“They contacted the incoming freshmen [to see] if anybody wanted to perform at the orientation coffeehouse, and I played the very first day of going to college.” Those college years turned out to be a fruitful period. Besides earning a degree in history and philosophy, he spent a lot of time hanging out at the Godfrey Daniels coffeehouse, playing, listening and meeting the performers.“I didn’t know that there was any way to make a living doing this,” he said. “I was interested in pursuing that when I went to college, but I didn’t know anybody who did it. The music programs were all geared at people that had been reading music since the fourth grade and that was not me. But being close to Godfrey Daniels was like a little slice of Bohemia there on the southside of Bethlehem. Having read some of the books about Bob Dylan and Greenwich Village in the ‘60s, I thought this must be what it felt like. And then when I finally got to see what Greenwich Village had become several years later, I wished it was more like Godfrey’s.”
After graduating from Moravian, Gorka stayed in the area, playing wherever he could. He emceed open mike nights at Godfrey Daniels, became the “house opening act” and met musicians who were making a living playing original acoustic music. He was there at the dawn of the “new folk” movement of the early ‘80s, and got opportunities in New York through the connections he made.
“I felt kind of lucky,” he said. “I lived in Easton, Pennsylvania at the time and it was about an hour and twenty minutes from the Holland Tunnel. So I was able to be a part of that scene without being too close; I was removed from the politics of the scene.“
At first when I got out of school I delivered flowers and I played in bars and restaurants. You’d have a regular thing for six months or a year and then you’d get a call saying not to come in. I was able to get by though I wasn’t saving anything. Then I started to volunteer for Sing Out! Magazine when it moved to Easton from New York City and they asked me if I wanted a job. So I worked at Sing Out! from late ’83 for about 2½ years. “
The thing that I realized hanging out at Godfrey’s was that these people weren’t cutting corners on their music at all, they were making the best music that they could think of and they weren’t trying to fit into a commercial box. So it was very inspiring to discover that there was this other world where you could make the kind of music that you wanted to make and you didn’t have to compromise at all.”
After winning the “new folk” award at the 1984 Kerrville Folk Festival, Gorka’s rich baritone voice and songwriting prowess began to garner a great deal of attention in the folk music world. The ten albums he’s released over the last eighteen years have cemented his place in the upper echelon of contemporary singer/songwriters. He is one of the most lyrically intelligent and melodically satisfying songsmiths working today.
When he married a Minnesota native ten years ago, John Gorka moved to the North Star State. Their two children are priority number one these days, but music isn’t far behind. “I don’t have as much time,” he lamented when asked if he still felt inspired to write new songs. “The working title of the record I’m working on now is Writing in the Margins because that’s kind of what I have to do with songwriting. But it’s more fun now than it’s ever been, especially doing the shows.
“I remember when I was about to graduate and I was asked what I thought I’d be doing in five years. I said, ‘I hope to be traveling around selling records out of the trunk of my car.’ I didn’t quite make it, it took me a few years longer than that, but seeing people at Godfrey’s was when I realized that I wanted to be one of those people.”
copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly