John Gorka’s haunting words from his song “Particle and Wave” are replaying on my mind’s turntable.
He wrote the lyrics on the morning of the March for Our Lives demonstration in 2018, in support of legislation to prevent gun violence. After watching images of George Floyd’s funeral and worrying about the insidious coronavirus and its potential to spread at protest rallies, I want to believe Gorka’s words more than ever.
He sings warmly:
Never stop believing there is goodness in the world …
I see children marching
There is goodness in the world
I listen to them speaking
There is goodness in the world
When we finally do the right thing,
There is goodness in the world
One of the leading singer-songwriters of the late 1980s and 1990s folk scene, Gorka, who hails from New Jersey, offered his song “Soap Opera” — recorded at his Minnesota home and featuring his rich, baritone voice and masterful storytelling — to NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series.
“Soap Opera” is his fourth home-made video since the pandemic (see below). This song, like most in his catalog, is sensitive but also bold in its honesty. He creates an intimate vibe with his honeyed voice as he sings:
When I’m washing dishes
I get flashes of the places I have been
… We need old things to ground us
New ideas to give us hope
Till then I’m big on running water
And I use it with a little bit of soap.
Well, not knowing is the worst thing
If anything will ever be the same
Little money coming in
And the bill collectors won’t forget my name.
They say the government will help me
But they cannot seem to tell me when.
While we’re waiting on the answers,
I’m guessing that we’re on our own again.
We venture out when we have to and connect on FaceTime or by Zoom chats; there’s a profound universal loss from our troubled economy, dysfunctional leaders and lack of contact from family and friends. Gorka captures all of these devastating themes in “Soap Opera.”
His inventive and emotive songs created a soundtrack that has supported and entertained many of us for years. He connects deeply with his audience through his stories and jokes. When he sings the quintessential New Jersey song, “I’m From New Jersey,” he laughs as he performs, enjoying his tune’s ironic and clever phrasing. (see video below). For another moment of levity, listen to his “People My Age,” which that mocks those of us who think aging gracefully is an achievable goal.
“I guess, like a lot of my songs, ‘Soap Opera’ began with me trying to make sense of the world as it spins,” he said. “Something like this has never happened before, to me or anyone else who is still alive. My mom was a little baby in the 1918 flu pandemic, in Newark. I had the opening line about the flashes of places I have been for a number of years before it found a place in this song. From there it went line by line, trying to catch the sound of a feeling of a life turned upside down.”
After writing the song in March, he recorded it on his iPad in early April. “Our Wi-Fi is too poor for me to live stream any shows, so I’ve been concentrating on trying to record a video of a song once a week,” he said. “It takes forever to get something that I’m okay with sending out to Facebook and YouTube. I have a better handle on the audio than on the video end of things.
“Once I’ve let go of one of these recordings, I don’t go back much and revisit them, but I’m glad I have a song from these times because I’m not the only one whose life and work have been changed, virtually overnight and possibly forever.”
After he graduated from Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1980, Gorka stayed in the area because of Bethlehem’s Godfrey Daniels coffeehouse (where he got his start as performer). He lived in Easton, Pa., for almost 20 years before moving to Minnesota, and now has two 20-something children. I recall his soulful 2017 performance at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair (see video below), where he sang a memorable rendition of “Ignorance and Privilege,” starting the song by joking that it’s an important lesson in life to choose your parents carefully.
Gorka’s touring schedule has been put on hold by the pandemic. “This is the longest time I’ve been at home since the kids were born, and maybe even longer than that,” he said.
“I love being home and being able to play with my recording gear. The learning curve of the video technology is pretty daunting and not as much fun. The ‘making a living thing’ is also a factor in daily life, but I try to concentrate on what is within my ability to control. My philosophy has been to pursue small, achievable goals every day, and not watch the news too much.”
Gorka lives in a rural community about an hour from Minneapolis. We discussed the murder of George Floyd, which took place in that city, and the massive protests that followed. “May is probably the most beautiful month of the year in Minnesota and the weather has been particularly gorgeous this year,” he said. “So the contrast between these sunny days with the brutal killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests is shocking and hard to comprehend. And the protests have gone all around the world.”
In addition to recording his own music in his home studio, he contributed a stunning version of Janis Ian’s anthemic “Better Times Will Come” to her Better Times Project, in April. His version is gorgeous, a sweet lullaby that comforts me with each listen. In a prior interview with Ian, she said that after she posted his version, “the response … was absurd – 45,000 likes, a multitude of visitors to his site!”
He described his process for recording “Better Times Will Come”:
“We are down to just one vehicle and my wife was away taking care of her 94-year-old mother, so I just had my bicycle to get around. I listened to the song over and over on my bike ride to the post office. It’s a 12-plus mile round trip so I listened to the song many times.”
He recorded the song at night, “but didn’t listen until the next morning, which happened to be Easter Sunday,” he said. “I wanted to have something positive to offer that day, so I didn’t obsess on the imperfections of my performance and sent it off. I heard back from Janis that she liked my version and was surprised that mine was the first. I was very glad! I wrote back, ‘It is a good song and a good song is hard to wreck.’ ”
Gorka said that, according to Facebook, his version of Ian’s song has now reached more than 100,000 people.
Gorka, who first met Ian in the late 1980s at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, says her music was transformative for him, as it was for many of us. “Her Between the Lines and Stars albums had a huge impact on me and were very much a soundtrack of my high school years, growing up in Colonia,” he said.
“I had been looking forward to seeing her (Ian) at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina in July as a part of their Contemporary Songwriting Week, which was canceled due to COVID-19, so to be able to reconnect with her through ‘Better Times’ has given me much joy.”
Have you found yourself listening to comfort music during these stressful times, including songs from albums whose grooves you wore out from overuse? Gorka has.
“I’ve been listening to some core albums these days that I haven’t listened to for a while,” he said. “The Band’s first two records, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Hejira, Between the Lines by Janis Ian, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, which has the line I often quote when people ask if I have any advice for up-and-coming musicians: ‘Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive/Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive.’ ” (If you are in need of a comforting song to rock you to sleep, reach for Gorka’s romantic “Love Is Our Cross to Bear” from his first album, I Know.)
Regarding his own music, Gorka said “they are all my children, so I’m not sure if I can single out a few without angering the rest. However, I can mention a few that seem to resonate with others: ‘Love Is Our Cross to Bear,’ ‘Let Them In,’ ‘Morningside,’ ‘People My Age,’ ‘I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair,’ ‘Ignorance & Privilege’ and ‘Semper Fi.’ ”
In addition to watching instructional videos on guitar, piano and banjo, Gorka spends his days riding his bike and feeding birds, and he tries “to make some sense with sounds and words,” he said.
He said the recent On a Winter’s Night Tour with Cliff Eberhardt, Patty Larkin, Christine Lavin and Cheryl Wheeler “has been a blast,” but he is concerned that his Red Horse trio shows next year with Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson are “up in the air now. … We did a couple shows in January of this year which were really fun. I hope that can happen again someday.”
Gorka spent some time in New York before the coronavirus hit, playing at the City Vineyard, a venue he loves. We discussed his early days playing in the New York folk scene. “I sure miss The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village … I miss Jack Hardy and all those talented people. But it’s always exciting to play in the Big City!”
He added, “I miss playing for people … I don’t miss the traveling as much with summer ahead. If it were February, I might miss going to places with different weather. I have a more sane schedule at home and much better food. I need to learn to play for people that I can’t see — or can’t see without a screen. That is the challenge. That and the ‘making a living’ thing. I also look forward to voting in November.”
I second that emotion.
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