There’s a particular quality of light in eastern Pennsylvania, where strips of piney woodland bisect gently undulating hills dotted with farm silos and ground-hugging abodes. The air is thick with gnats and humidity, and during that golden hour when night has yet to lower its inky veil across the landscape, loamy browns, brick reds, and variegated tones of lush, amber-stippled green seem to glow in the sun’s fading embrace. It’s like slipping inside a 3-D Andrew Wyeth painting that spurs unbidden musings about history — as if the light unlocks stories of prior generations who backboned communities with their labor.
John Gorka has deftly evoked such past and present tableaus since his early recordings. After graduating from Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he studied history and philosophy, and several dues-paying years at nearby Godfrey Daniels coffeehouse, where he ran sound and eventually opened for national touring acts, the emerging New Folk leader shared stories of people and places he encountered in melodic songs like “Promnight in Pigtown” from his second album, 1990’s “Land of the Bottom Line,” and “Houses in the Fields” and the gentrification folk-rocker “Where the Bottles Break” from 1991’s “Jack’s Crows.” They remain audience favorites today. The native Jersey boy (the witty “I’m From New Jersey” is another concert staple) has long called Minnesota home, but picturesque details that illuminate the character of a place — the land as well as its inhabitants — remain a hallmark of his music.
“As I travel I try to see what’s different and I try to catalogue what’s the same,” he observes while talking in a corner of the annual Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, continually moving around to escape noise from construction and general tumult caused by thousands of roaming musicians. “Experiences that matter, there’s not a lot of them, and they are ones that most people experience. … My life is no better and no worse than anybody else’s life. I write in a way that allows people to see themselves in the songs.
“I enjoy telling stories. I tend to gravitate toward characters who are more on the margins, rather than the ‘what’s his names’ of the world.”
“What’s his name” alludes to Donald Trump, who scored a mention in “Where the Bottles Break” back when he was just a boldface gossip-column fixture: “Money talks and people jump/ Ask how high low life Donald what’s his name/ And who cares/ I don’t wanna know what his girlfriend doesn’t wear.”
Recent events have renewed the song’s currency, and not long ago Gorka posted on his website an uncharacteristically political song, “5 Letters Long,” a thoughtful attempt at figuring out how people arrive at differing viewpoints. Generally, though, he veers away from divisive topicality, preferring to respect his audience’s need to assemble on common ground and escape the 24/7 news/tweet cycle. “Tattooed,” from his new album “True in Time,” is emblematic of how he focuses on “human nature rather than any incident” and addresses feelings without specifying challenges: “It’s a pretty new day in a pretty new year/ It’s hard to know where to go from here/ It’s easy to say ’cause talk is cheap/ Are you worried now are you losing sleep/ ‘Worried Man Blues’ is an old song that comes to mind/ In a world gone wrong where hope is so hard to find/ Losing hurts worse and winning feels good/ They say move on and you know you should.”
Released in January by Red House, “True in Time” is defined by a strong sense of place as well as motion. Travels inspired tracks like the New Mexico-backdropped “Arroyo Seco,” while the tender, beautifully fingerpicked “Blues With a Rising Sun” recounts a letter Gorka once wrote to aging blues legend Son House. Gorka reteamed with Jonatha Brooke and his 2010 “Red Horse” collaborators Lucy Kaplansky and former Pasadenan Eliza Gilkyson; “The Ballad of Iris & Pearl,” a jaunty country imagining of “unsung heroes of the music world” that namechecks A.P. and Sara Carter and Bill Monroe, was titled after Gilkyson’s dogs. He’ll play several of the new songs during his solo concert at Caltech’s Beckman Institute Auditorium Saturday.
His baritone remains warm and sturdy, and Gorka, who’ll turn 60 in July, still tours steadily for a loyal base of fans who’ve attended so many shows over the decades they’ve become friends. He hasn’t ruled out writing short stories, but they would need to “bubble up from the subconscious” the way his songs do. “Maybe if my traveling days were over,” he suggests. Until then, he remains a troubadour.
“The people I wanted to be like were the performers I saw at Godfrey Daniels coffeehouse, who I thought were making better music than I heard on radio or saw on television. They were not superstars but they were making a living out of the music they were creating, selling record albums out of the trunk of their car. I didn’t know if I could do it. Then there was this one show I remember in Jamaica Plains, where my first record had been getting airplay, and people came out because they wanted to hear the songs they’d heard on the radio; that was the night I felt, ‘Whoa, I could do this for a while.’
“I’m always ready for the bottom to fall out,” he says, chuckling. “I’m grateful that it hasn’t.”
The Pasadena Folk Music Society presents John Gorka at Caltech’s Beckman Institute Auditorium, 400 S. Wilson Ave., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 3; $20 adults/$5 Caltech students and children under 12. Info: (626) 395-4652. Johngorka.com, Caltech.edu, pasadenafolkmusicsociety.org