I've strayed from the folkfold a bit over the past weeks, testing the limits of folk subgenres and hybridization, trying to feel out just how far one can throw the modern conceit in which everything is a slash-folk hyphenate. I make no apologies for this -- folk is a big tent, with many murky corners worthy of exploration. It is also, by definition, tied to the listening culture in intimate, cyclical ways which make it natural for folk to be in a state of constant interaction and integration with...well, everything. Including other forms of music.
But he who would claim to run a folk music blog cannot spend all his time at the periphery of the genre. It's time to get back to the core of modern folk music, where the artists who made their name performing intimate acoustic songs to tiny bohemian audiences still lug their backseat guitars from city to city on the coffeehouse circuit. And I can think of no more worthy subject for such a triumphant return to the core of modern American folk music than John Gorka.
I've seen John Gorka perform live more than any other musician, and I haven't had to work too hard at it. Since his early days in the Fast Folk songwriter/performer cooperative, Gorka has been one of the hardest working singer-songwriters in the folk business, an anchor for folk festival lineups and a crowd-pleaser at struggling coffeehouses. One year I saw him six times -- twice indoors, four times outdoors -- and by the end of the season, we were nodding recognition to each other as we passed among the folk fest food vendors.
John Gorka came up through the ranks the hard way, opening for Bill Morrisey and Nanci Griffith before taking first place at the 1984 Kerrville Folk Festival at the age of 26. Three years later, upon the release his first album I Know, Rolling Stone named him "the voice of 'new folk'". Since then, he has released ten albums, five of which I listened all the way through this evening, trying to put words to Gorka's greatness.
And let me tell you, I've had a hell of a time trying to pin down what it is about John Gorka that makes his work so powerful.
It's not his humor, though Gorka can write light, wry, self-effacing and funny better than most. It is not his elder-statesman status among the post-Fast Folk generation, though it's always good to listen to those folks who the folks you love are listening to. It is not anything especially adept about his technique, though that rich, clear baritone and gentle way with a guitar comprise a powerful instrument. And it is not his infamous kindness, though I have never seen a performer take more genuine grateful pleasure, more sincere and untainted glee, in being given the gift of sharing his songs...and though there is nothing more folk than the way Gorka grins that infectious crooked grin, like Dennis Quaid without the mischief, in the face of applause.
For many listeners and critics, the above is more than anough to secure Gorka's place in the pantheon of folk gods. But for once, I'm not going to try to speak to what makes Gorka good in any objective sense. Because, to me, what makes Gorka the epitome of folk is that he has the ability to truly speak to a part of me that, once realized through his music, turns out to be exactly what I have always felt.
Gorka is the only songwriter I know that, so often and so well, speaks for the secret, sensitive part of me that rails against the trappings of what our overcommericalized, testosterone-laden culture says a man should be. His ability to capture and express deep love and commitment as brave, honorable, and bittersweet, through deceptively simple guitarwork and an unusually rich, pure voice, is both uncanny and perfectly expressed.
And Gorka does this better, and more often, than any musician I know. He gives voice to a particularly sincere, masculine ownership of self as fragile and human which I have heard in other artists, and he applies this sensibility to more aspects of who I am - father, son, lover, laborer, wanderer - than any other musician I have heard.
Perhaps this subjectivity is not so subjective. Perhaps, though it is our commonality of white male experience which makes this work on one level, it is also true that, like with Joni's longing for Canada or Josh Ritter's unfinished adolescence, anyone can find their own emotional story in Gorka's tales of blue collar labor, parenthood, and love. If so, then this is the kind of folk artist that makes you feel things you didn't know you felt, in ways that are clearer than you knew possible.
The intimate connection I feel with Gorka's music may affect my ability to judge the path of his career more objectively. Though all his albums have topped the folk charts -- his 2006 release Writing in the Margins won numerous "best of" awards in the folkworld -- in my opinion, some of Gorka's recent work has been a bit erratic. His newer political songs are weaker; tracks on his recent albums suffer from overproduction which drags them out past their power. Though his later work speaks brilliantly to the bittersweetness of fatherhood, his cover of Marc Cohn's Things We've Handed Down on a recent kidfolk compilation is an unfortunate trainwreck, pitched far too high for his voice. And though Gorka brings life to Stan Rogers' poignant The Lockkeeper on Writing in the Margins, his older live version is far better.
But even on an objective level, this is minor quibbling; Gorka's output has been so strong for decades, it is easy to excuse an occasional lapse in concentration. In live performance, and in recent tracks like Townes Van Zandt's Snow Don't Fall, Gorka can still call up an absolutely stunning power. And happily for cover fans, over three decades of performing and recording at the center of the folkworld, Gorka has contributed songs to many folk cover compilations and tribute albums, where, invariably, his song choices and his performance stand out from the crowd.
Today, a select few songs Gorka has chosen to make his own over the years.* All are good, and many are great; take them with my blessing, and be prepared to be spoken to. I cannot claim that you will feel what I feel, but by all accounts, this is what folk is supposed to be.
Everyone who reads this blog should have at least one John Gorka album in their collection. There are many, including Pure John Gorka, a "best of" compilation of the five albums Gorka released on the Windham Hill label between 1990 and 1996, but if you're just starting your collection, I absolutely recommend Gorka's second, his major label debut Land of the Bottom Line. From there, pick up his debut, and his last four CDs, at Red House Records, which celebrates 25 years in the folk business this year. Even better, pick up Gorka's in-print albums directly through John Gorka's website, where autographs come with every CD at no additional charge.
Today's bonus coversongs include two Gorka originals covered with care and beauty; David Wilcox, especially, captures the best of Gorka's emotive power in a song originally cobbled from an old prayer written by a soldier in wartime. Plus a fun, familiar song with Gorka on backup, just to show off that voice a little more:
- David Wilcox, Let Them In (orig. John Gorka)
- Maura O'Connell, Blue Chalk (orig. John Gorka)
- Cliff Eberhardt w/ John Gorka and Patty Larkin, You Really Got A Hold On Me (orig. Smokey Robinson)
Previously on Cover Lay Down:
*I am also desperately seeking a recording of John Gorka covering Dylan's Love Minus Zero/No Limit, which appeared on the out of print A Tribute to Bob Dylan, Vol. II (Sister Ruby Records: 1994).