Part of an occasional series on a single song composed by a major American songwriter.
The creative process is one of life's most intriguing mysteries. And so it is with songwriting.
John Gorka's "Flying Red Horse," which pays tribute to our own city's symbol, Pegasus, is a perfect example.
For years, Gorka drove by a Mobil station "off of I-84 in Connecticut. It was the Ruby Road exit," he says. "I passed by it one too many times, I guess, and it started to click into this song."
He's expected to sing it Friday night at Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse, where he last performed in 2011. "Flying Red Horse" also inspired the name of the three-person ensemble he shares with fellow artists Eliza Gilkyson and Lucy Kaplansky.
The group is Red Horse, although, strangely, its one album does not include "Flying Red Horse."
"We are," Gorka says with a laugh, "marketing geniuses."
It was one thing to pass by the Mobil station on numerous occasions and see the flying red horse emblazoned on the sign. But Gorka soon felt an eerie sensation: He found himself identifying with the horse, which, in the song, extricates itself from the sign and flies into the sky.
It was, he says, exactly what he longed to do. It was a time "when I was beginning to feel discord with the record company," the label that predates his current Red House Records.
"It seemed like they were more concerned with my hair, how my hair looked than with my songs," he says with a laugh. "It was kind of a bizarre time."
Taking the horse analogy even further, he says, "By the third record, they wanted to break me. They almost did but not in the way I would have hoped." The experience "helped me define what music meant to me."
The last verse of the song exposes the feeling rather pointedly:
"They think they can tame you, name you and frame you/Aim you where you don't belong/They know where you've been but not where you're going/And that is the source of the songs."
Gorka loves hearing the latest chapter in our local history, about the rebirth of the original Pegasus, whose new incarnation began in May atop a miniature oil derrick in front of the Omni Dallas Hotel. That red horse first appeared in 1934 atop the Magnolia Building.
It was, for years, the highest point in the Dallas skyline. It remained there until Jan. 1, 2000, when a second Pegasus replaced it. Flying red horse No. 2 still stands atop the Magnolia. Gorka loves the fact that, in 2015, Dallas has two "Pegasi," as it were. He's hoping to drive downtown and see them during his visit and maybe take a "selfie" in front of the rebuilt version at the Omni.
Scores of readers responded to The Dallas Morning News' story on the saving of the original Pegasus. Gorka knows the feeling. He admits being surprised, even astonished, by the wave of emotion brought on by "Flying Red Horse."
He heard from a woman who worked for a plastic company. She designed the plastic, spinning, flying red horse that appeared atop filling stations during the 1940s. He heard from a fan whose grandfather worked on the advertising campaign that showcased the oil company's "new" symbol, way back when.
The flying red horse has turned out to be, he says, "a bigger piece of Americana than I thought it would be."
"Flying Red Horse" first appeared on his 1994 album Out of the Valley and quickly emerged as one of his frequently requested songs.
Plan your life
John Gorka will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse, 9555 N. Central Expressway. Amilia K. Spicer opens. $20 in advance, $25 at the door. 214-363-0044, unclecalvins.org.
Here is a YouTube clip of Gorka performing "Flying Red Horse":