John Gorka - Friend of the DFC
He may be a celebrated singer-songwriter but returning to live music in 2021 made John Gorka nervous. “I was glad to do it, but it was scary. I did three shows in a row (in New Mexico) and I got more nervous each time. It reminded me of going to open mic night at Godfrey Daniels Coffee House in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania - practicing my banjo in my dorm room basement and going to play for people. It was like that again, like being a new performer.” That describes how many musicians felt this year, even the man Rolling Stone dubbed “the leading singer/songwriter of the New Folk movement.”
But John never thought of becoming a musician when he was younger. “I always liked music but never thought of it as a profession.” He was more interested in becoming a writer but didn’t realize that music would be his path. “I also loved the sound of the banjo and started to learn the five-string banjo. And my brother plays guitar and lent me his. I worked on songs right away because I couldn’t play other people’s songs in the right way. I could work within my limitations on my own songs.”
Godfrey Daniels Coffee House
While attending college John became friends with some fellow musicians who were interested in acoustic music and bluegrass. “We founded the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band - the name I took from a book by Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues – kind of street band of kids who would get together and play.” He performed through college and “ran the coffee house program”. Then Doug Anderson (a fellow Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band member) introduced him to Godfrey Daniels Coffee House – a hub where professional musicians from all over the country, the U.K. and parts of Europe came to play - “the coffee house has had a rough time over the past couple of years, but they’re still there, still going.”
John started going to their open mic nights and eventually hosted them while still in school. “I was a general-purpose volunteer there. I was the house opening act for the performers and those folks opened doors for me later. I first opened for Jack Hardy in June of ’79 and continued as the opening act through the early ‘80s. He was the first person I knew who wrote songs on a schedule – his was one song per week. That made a big difference to me – to be on a schedule. He said ‘if you work at it you’re going to get better faster’. So, I put myself on a song-a-month schedule. And after the first year I had more songs than months, so I moved to a two-song-a-month schedule. I did that for many years until I had kids.
“The idea is you don’t have to wait for inspiration to come to you. The inspiration comes while you’re working - the art happens as you’re working on your craft. That’s been my approach.”
The musicians at the coffee house made a huge impression on John. “I had listened to Tim Hardin, John Prine and Steve Goodman. There were people I’d met at Godfrey Daniels Coffee House whose music I thought was better than I’d heard on the radio and TV – Stan Rogers was a great Canadian songwriter and Nanci Griffith, Jack Hardy, Claudia Schmidt, Utah Phillips - there’s a bunch of people. Watching them do their shows and how my favorite performers could transform a room – the place would feel completely different than it would before. That’s when I realized you don’t need a grand hall to make magic with your music. Your music, songs and stories can reach an audience – that’s who I wanted to be when I saw those people. It’s a great inspiring place.”
The Denver Folklore Center Connection
“I heard about the Denver Folklore Center while reading about the history of folk music. There was probably just a handful of places like it. Denver Folklore has a kind of mythical reputation. I’ve met Harry Tuft a number of times - he’s a great person, a real inspiration. It’s nice to be able to visit with the people that are keeping it going.”
Always the Student
John plays several instruments including acoustic guitar, some keyboard, electric guitar and the banjo - he’s mostly self-taught. “My brother taught me some chords on the guitar, but I’m kind of an odd learner. I wouldn’t recommend self-teaching. I think if I’d had a good teacher I’d know more, but there’s a lot you can learn from online lessons. I never learned to read music very well, so I’m taking an online music theory course to fill in the gaps. I’m interested in the technical part. If I can get good sounds it doesn’t have to be complex to be satisfying. I’m still trying to learn. The more I learn the less I know.
“I always had kind of a faith in myself that I was doing the right thing. One of my heroes Stan Rogers, his brother said ‘he wasn’t so much a hopeless romantic, but a relentless romantic’.” We think that describes John as well.
One-Song Concert Series
When the pandemic hit John’s touring ended overnight, but he found a creative outlet. “I have a home recording setup, so I started making videos. I took some online courses to learn how to do it. I started doing one-song concerts each week.” People can check out the one-song concerts and his other videos on YouTube HERE. Visit John’s website for his upcoming tour dates HERE - he even has a few Colorado dates in March 2022! And read what John had to say about the instrument that got away – his Froggy Bottom guitar - HERE.