Robert Sarazin Blake,
Robt Sarazin Blake
(Same Room, 2013)

John Gorka,
Bright Side of Down
(Red House, 2014)

Singer-songwriters were around before anyone thought to call them "singer-songwriters." Early country-blues singers often wrote -- or sometimes claimed to have written -- most or all of the material they recorded. Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams penned many of their own songs. But singer-songwriters as a particular subset of musical artists came out of the 1960s folk boom. Everybody can point to Bob Dylan's role, obviously, but the first may have been Tom Paxton, who like Dylan is still touring, still recording.

For a time singer-songwriters and "folk singers" were more or less synonyms, which is to say that the former were an evolutionary development from the rural-based musical traditions we talk about when we talk about "folk." In due course, though, singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were creating their own genres. These days, when you hear someone identified as a "singer-songwriter," he or she is probably just another pop performer with no influences deeper than other singer-songwriters.

Robert Sarazin Blake (Washington state) and John Gorka (Minnesota) are graduates of the old school. Both lean to folk sounds, play acoustic guitars, and sing and speak plainly. Each has a social/political point of view. Neither would recoil if somebody called him a folk singer. And if you like this sort of approach, you will like these albums.

Blake's Robt Sarazin Blake -- couldn't he have worked a little harder at a title, by the way? -- is as good a Tom Paxton acolyte as you're ever going to hear. The present recording will make you think of Paxton in his prime. His vocals are also reminiscent of Paxton's. I don't complain about this, understand; what matters is that the 10 songs are strong and the album sufficiently appealing to encourage and repay multiple listenings. (I might add that the -- exactly -- 13-minute-long "Ghosts on Bedford Ave" could pass for Dylan circa 1965. Blake wisely places this last.) The production is fittingly skeletal, the song and the story at the forefront.

Among the handful of participating musicians are Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, whose justly acclaimed Child Ballads is as captivating an album as I've heard in the last year. And on the subject of Child ballads, Blake rewrites Child #1 -- sometimes called "The Riddle Song" -- as "Joy." (On their own recording Mitchell & Hamer recreate the original, "Riddles Wisely Expounded," in a version for the ages.) I expect that Blake's album (released early this year, the copyright date notwithstanding) will please a lot of listeners and reviewers in the months ahead.

John Gorka is among the warmest vocalists working the folk scene these days. His voice has the soothing quality of hot chocolate on a winter's night, and indeed much of the content of Bright Side of Down touches on winter, literal or metaphorical. The title song, a meditation on the passing of friends and family, evokes the latter. In the former category, the opening cut, "Holed Up in Mason City," wryly recalls the frustration of a road musician trapped while snow swirls over that Iowa town and the singer dreams of heading north "back on I-35 ... I just want to make it home alive." Meantime, there's Buddy Holly's ghost at the (fictional) Big Bopper Cafe. Gorka assumes the listener knows that in February 1959 Holly, the Bopper, and Richie Valens perished in a snowy plane crash just outside Mason City on their way to Minnesota.

Bright Side is, I suspect, mostly for the fans. Except for the occasional song, Gorka, who's been around for years, is not someone I ordinarily seek out when I repair to the stacks in search of a favored CD. Too much "I," too much introspection, too much true love and/or (usually mild) romantic angst for me. Still, if you're looking for something like a more folkish, less poppish James Taylor, he does that pretty well. He also accomplishes it with good taste and good humor. Gorka certainly never lacks for either musicality or amiability.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 March 2014

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

Click on a cover image
to make a selection.

what's new