Jennie Esposito remembers her first encounter with John Gorka. He was a shy eighth-grader in Colonia who had been invited to join her church folk group. “When he spoke, it would take him a long time to say what was on his mind,” Esposito says. Then she heard him sing. “We were thrilled to have him. I gave him a lot of solos.”
Gorka has never stopped singing. Now 51, he is a respected folk artist with a loyal fan base built over 30 years of recording and touring. These days he lives with his family in Minnesota, where he recorded much of his new album, So Dark You See, in his home studio.
In some ways, Gorka never left New Jersey. “I think of being from New Jersey as an asset,” he says. Folks in Colonia think of him as an asset, too. Last year, when he returned to perform at St. John Vianney Church, the town’s mayor presented him with a proclamation of John Gorka Day. The document now hangs in Gorka’s home. According to Woodbridge Township Councilwoman Brenda Velasco, the day helped raise more than $4,000 for the parish school.
Naturally, Jennie Esposito was there for Gorka’s day. Now a real estate agent in Colonia, Esposito brought Gorka back to his childhood home on Wood Avenue, which happened to be on the market at the time. “It was very emotional, walking back through his family’s home,” says Esposito. “There were still many things in the home from when he lived there.”
Next it was time to decide on a place to eat. “He picked the diner we used to go to when we were kids—the Galaxy Diner on St. Georges Avenue in Rahway,” says Esposito.
Gorka enjoys coming back to perform in the Garden State; he will give a candlelight concert April 24 as part of the Sanctuary Concerts series in Chatham (sanctuaryconcerts.org). He says he often yearns for old Jersey favorites. “I’m nostalgic for Taylor ham and the Jersey Shore.”
Yet one of his best-known songs, “I’m From New Jersey,” originally released in 1991, seemed to put down his native state and its shopping-mall girls with “great big hair.” How does he feel about that now? “It doesn’t disparage New Jersey,” he claims. “It tries to capture an attitude that some people have. I would use the word sardonic. I don’t think of it as a put-down at all.”
In fact, says Gorka, the inferiority complex expressed in his song (“I’m from New Jersey, I don’t expect too much, if the world ended today, I would adjust…I’m from New Jersey, it’s not like Texas, there is no mystery, I can’t pretend”) is, in the long term, a healthy attitude.
“Suzzy from the band the Roches told me that sort of attitude is an asset. If you’re not from a place that has a superiority complex, it works to your benefit. If you never feel like you’ve got it made, you always work at getting better.” (The Roches are originally from Park Ridge.)
Gorka thinks New Jersey is getting better, too. “I don’t think there is as much big hair as when I wrote ‘I’m From New Jersey,’” he says. “And I also think New Jersey’s image is changing for the better. Bruce Springsteen single-handedly has done a lot for that.”
So, is he ever going to write another Jersey song—maybe something more upbeat?
“It’s hard to say what I’ll be writing,” Gorka says. “I don’t have a lot of control over the songs.”
Although he’s never sold a lot of records—about 200,000 by his count—and has never had his songs covered in a big way (Maura O’Connell did “Blue Chalk,” and Irish singer Mary Black recorded several Gorka numbers), he says he is pleased to earn a decent living performing the music he loves.
The Internet helps keep his network of fans involved and informed about his latest recordings and tour dates. At his shows, they are treated to performances full of inventive guitar, banjo, and piano playing, and Gorka’s quirky humor.
The new album, his eleventh, was released October 2009 by the respected indie label Red House Records. It features guest singers—the noted folk artists Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson—plus poetry adapted to music and two instrumental compositions. Compelling lyrics are still the focus, as on the song “Ignorance and Privilege,” about advantages earned and unearned. Gorka says the song was inspired by the late columnist Molly Ivins’s line about the second President Bush: “He was born on third base thinking he’d hit a triple.”
Gorka’s lyric: “I didn’t know it but my way was paved.”
Above all, loyalty and family are important to Gorka. He and his wife, a freelance environmental writer, have two children, a boy, 12, and a girl, 10. But family life is a challenge when you are on the road much of the time playing festivals, small clubs, coffeehouses, even churches.
“I used to think one week to the next. Now as a father I think in terms of decades,” he says.
The future? More touring, more albums, and more reaching out to his audience. “The idea is to prolong it. I go to towns that the big tours don’t go to,” he says. “People there appreciate not being overlooked.”
There’s no chance he’ll ever be overlooked in Colonia. “We miss him,” says Velasco. “We’re glad he’s happy in Minnesota, but he’s really a Jersey boy.”
Robert Gluck is an award-winning freelance writer. He grew up in New Jersey and lives in Pennsylvania.