Before Beginning: The Unreleased I Know – Nashville 1985
Red House Records
I’ve known John Gorka for a long time – probably since the very early-1980s, if not earlier. In any case it was years before his first album, I Know, was released in 1987. We’d hang out at folk festivals as part of the Sing Out! magazine crowd. John was living in Bethlehem, PA, where Sing Out is headquartered, and often helped out editor Mark Moss while I was one of the regular contributing writers.
I was visiting Boston not long after I Know came out and ran into John one afternoon in Harvard Square and he slipped me a copy. I was on my way to Passim, the legendary folk club, to say hi to proprietors and old friends Bob and Rae Anne Donlin and it turned out John was playing there that night. We stayed for the show and I remember it being a great concert.
I Know is an album filled with some great songs and it established John’s well-deserved reputation as one of the finest folk-rooted singer-songwriters of our time. What I didn’t know until recently was that the version of I Know that Red House released in 1987 was the second version of the album. Two years earlier, John went to Nashville and recorded a version of the album with producer Jim Rooney. Jim, also an old friend, was a veteran of the 1960s folk and bluegrass scene who was working in Nashville producing excellent albums for artists like Townes Van Zandt, Tom Paxton, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, David Mallett, Steve Gillette and so many others.
John decided not to release the Nashville recording and eventually re-recorded nine of the 10 songs – plus three more – for the 1987 LP. Finally, though, 32 years after the Nashville sessions, John has released them as Before Beginning: The Unreleased ‘I Know’ – Nashville 1985.
Listening to the CD before reading John’s liner notes it was hard to fathom why John decided not to release the album in 1985. The songs are really good – we already knew that from I Know – and the singing, arrangements and production are all very strong. It would have been an excellent debut album for the 25-year-old singer-songwriter.
But, as John explains in the liner notes to Before Beginning, “Why did I not put that project out as a record after all that work and expense? I can only say that I was finding my way. I had played solo live almost exclusively and I had not made an album. I guess I just didn’t know what I wanted to hear… The record may have been right for the time but the time was not right for me.”
Although the songs were already familiar – nine from I Know and the 10th, “Geza’s Wailing Ways,” from a Fast Folk collection – they sound fresh in these different arrangements.
My favorite song here is “Down in the Milltown.” I presume John was writing about Bethlehem which was once a prominent steel mill town. He captures a mill worker’s thoughts and life with the kind of depth that the late Bill Morrissey did in so many songs about New England mill towns and workers.
Other highlights include clever songs like “Winter Cows,” which fantasizes about what cows might be thinking about when it’s cold outside and “Branching Out,” written from the perspective of a tree and what it wants its wood to eventually be; and “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair,” a beautiful lament in which he looks for signs of a lost love in others he encounters.
Pictured: John Gorka, Mike Regenstreif and Lucy Kaplansky at the 2012 Ottawa Folk Festival. Lucy and Shawn Colvin sang harmonies on both Before Beginning in 1985 and I Know in 1987.