By Kathy Sands-BoehmerJohn Gorka has been a staple on the coffeehouse scene for quite a while. His gentle self-deprecating humor and wise and thoughtful lyrics have endeared him to acoustic music fans far and wide. He has a website chock full of all kinds of interesting tidbits. A trailer for John’s DVD, The Gypsy Life , that is posted on YouTube, gives a glimpse into John Gorka — the musician, the performer, the storyteller.
Your name is almost synonymous with Godfrey Daniels — the legendary listening room and coffeehouse in downtown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Do you remember the first time you walked in there? Please tell us about your history with the place.
My friend Doug Anderson from The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band took me there on a weekday in late 1976. He was dropping off a record for his friend George Gritzbach to get him a booking there. People were sitting around the front room passing around a guitar. It came to me and I played a song. I thought it was what Greenwich Village must have been like in the early 60’s. It was a little slice of Bohemia right there on the southside of Bethlehem, PA.
I suspect your transition to the New York City folk scene of the 1980s was a pretty big one for you. Was getting involved with that whole Fast Folk crowd at Jack Hardy’s a real turning point in your career?
Jack was the first person I opened for at Godfrey Daniels in June 1979. My friend Russ Rentler and I were billed as the “Razzy Dazzy Brothers.” Jack H. was the first person I ever met who wrote songs on a schedule. At the time he was finishing an average of a song per week. He did 90 minutes of original music, most of which he had written in the previous 18 months. I was amazed anyone could come up with that much original material in that short a time. His songs, his approach and his personality were a great inspiration to me. I was sort of the house opening act for singer-songwriters coming through Godfrey Daniels in the early ’80s, and a lot of the people I opened shows for opened doors for me in other parts of the country. One of the next times I opened for Jack he said when I come to NYC next I should do something for the Fast Folk Musical Magazine. Jack encouraged me when I needed that encouragement most. So, yes, it was a turning point.
I remember buying your first album (yes, the vinyl), I Know, after seeing you open for Nanci Griffith at Club Passim. I still remember being knocked out by “Heart on Demand” and “Love is Our Cross to Bear.” One would have to be made out of stone to not be affected by these songs. The early touring days must have been . . . for lack of a better word . . . interesting. I’d like to think that the positive feedback that you got about your songs kept you going even when the financial rewards may not have been what you’d like them to be.
The I Know record didn’t sell a million copies but it did get me work and it also got air play. Eventually word spread and people started coming to shows to hear the songs from that record. It was a time of sleeping on people’s floors and couches and eating at many drive-up windows. My first cross-country tour in the spring of ‘88 was not a success to say the least. Things started to turn around the next month, in May, when I did a show in Jamaica Plain, MA and the place was full of enthusiastic people and I started to get the feeling that I might be able to do this for a while.
I’ve got to ask this: What was the inspiration behind “Prom Night in Pigtown”? That’s a classic “only John Gorka could get away with this” kind of song!
I didn’t go to my high school prom, but I did go to my 10 year reunion. And I had recently been to a party of musician types where Eric Von Schmidt played a song called “Frogs Go to the Movies,” and I said I’d written a song called “Prom Night in Pigtown,” but it was not about pigs. Eric said I should make it about pigs . . . and so I did.
And, by the way, thanks for the pierogi recipe on your website. I’m of half-Polish descent and I’ve got to say . . . I’ve never had a pierogi with bacon and sauerkraut. Sounds and smells (virtually) intoxicating. Do you cook for your family when you’re around?
I am better as an eater than as a cook. I do make a few things now and then. I can make pancakes and breakfast things and pierogi, and I also am not afraid of doing the dishes. Actually, I have professional dishwashing experience.
Like many of us, Kathy Sands-Boehmer wears many hats. An editor by profession, she also operates Harbortown Music and books artists for the Me and Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead, Massachusetts. In her spare time, Kathy can be found at local music haunts all over New England. This and many previous Q & A interviews with artists are archived at www.meandthee.org/blog/txp/, as well as in the Features section of AcousticMusicScene.com.