Song for Gamble Words & Music by Steve Gillette & Charles John Quarto
In the photo above Gamble Rogers confers with Merle Travis, one of his idols, at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the late 1980s. There is clearly mutual affection and respect between the two finger-style masters.
Last week's article about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing has brought up the topic of the hero song. Usually some exaggeration or hyperbole will be invoked. John Henry vanquished the steam drill, the Frozen Logger buttoned up his coat at a hundred degrees below zero, Davy Crockett 'killed a bear when he was only three' and other such larger-than-life tales.
Gamble truly was a hero, but on a human scale. He risked and lost his life in an attempt to rescue a man in trouble in the rip tide at a beach near St. Augustine. This was in October of 1991. At the time, the beach was known as Flagler Beach after the railroad and hotel magnate, but has since been designated the Gamble Rogers Memorial Beach and Recreation Area by unanimous declaration of the Florida Legislature.
Wikipedia reports that:
"While Rogers was camping at Flagler Beach, a frightened young girl ran to him, begging him to help her father, who was in trouble in rough surf. Compromised by spinal arthritis that had been worsening since childhood, Rogers nevertheless grabbed an air mattress and headed into the ocean in a rescue attempt. Both men died in the surf."
Gamble was already a heroic figure to those of us who play music and tell stories. He had a unique presence which combined hypnotic finger-style guitar, a seductive storyteller's craft, and a wonderful sense of humor.
Bruce Horovitz has written a biography entitled "Gamble Rogers: A Troubadour's Life," published by the University Press of Florida. In it he recounts:
"Rogers grew up in Winter Park, where his father, also named Gamble Rogers, was a highly regarded architect. He spent his boyhood summers on a family farm located in the Appalachian foothills about 90 miles north of Atlanta, an experience that seems to have provided some of the material for the stories he would tell about fictional Oklawaha County."
At the University of Virginia, Rogers studied with William Faulkner, then serving as writer in residence at the school. It may be that Faulkner was an influence, particularly on Rogers' creation of such colorful characters as Agamemnon Jones, Still Bill, Chester the Molester and Forklift Mary. He called his one-man show "Oklawaha County Laissez-Faire."
In one story, Gamble recounted that they had an old 'shackle-block' Chevrolet that was so enfeebled that you had to get up to sixty miles an hour before the headlights would come on. He used to say: "The Lord gives me grace and the devil gives me style." We incorporated others of Gamble's sayings in our song about him.
I met Gamble in 1966 in New York. At that time he was member of The Serendipity Singers, a folk group managed by Fred Weintraub, owner of The Bitter End on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. Fred also owned a restaurant just upstairs from the Bitter End, called The Tin Angel where we would gather. It had an excellent menu, a little upscale for those of us in what actors have called their 'salad days,' but a special treat to be sure.
There was a pay phone near the bathrooms which consistently returned all the coins one had laboriously inserted for that long call home to California. That was such a welcome blessing, not to be taken for granted. It seemed to us that it was definitely a 'tin angel.' Needless to say, nobody reported this to the phone company.
Regulars at the Bitter End instituted an informal afternoon comedy and improvisation workshop that I took advantage of which included Gamble, Jake Holmes, a comedy trio called the Pickle Brothers (Ron Prince, Michael Mislove, and Peter Lee), Billy Saluga ("you doesn't has to call me Johnson"), and a few others who would show up when they were in town. Gamble's guitar chops and his sense of humor inspired all of us trying to grow in our craft.
I lived around the corner on Sullivan Street at number 210 in an apartment that David Wilkes had found for me. Gamble was there along with Mark Roth and Raun McKinnon when David brought over the single of my song "Back On the Street Again" by the Sunshine Company, the first time any of us heard it. It was a memorable moment for me.
Eventually Gamble settled down in St. Augustine, Florida where the Tradewinds Tropical Lounge became his home club. He continued to travel around the country, playing as many 300 concerts a year. He was often heard on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
Gamble conducted a workshop at the Kerrville Folk Festival when I got there in 1984. He was very generous and candid in revealing secrets of his performance style and his theories on storytelling. He went into detail about a special fastener that kept his guitar strap connected when he would seemingly 'throw' the guitar around behind him, which always produced a gasp, and punctuated a dramatic moment when a story took center stage.
Gamble acknowledged the influence of Merle Travis on his playing and did many of Merle's songs. He also emulated Mississippi John Hurt, a Piedmont blues man and sharecrop farmer who had recorded for the legendary Okeh Records in 1928, and was re-discovered to appear at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. I got to hear him at a concert at my college in Riverside, California in the fall of 1964.
A couple years after Gamble died, Charles John Quarto and I were ready to try to put our thoughts into a song about him. In Charles' room at the Inn of the Hills in Kerrville, one of us would sit at the desk while the other paced the room, remembering out loud the way Gamble would say things and some of the things we remembered him saying. We began to feel that he was present with us.
Over time, I've located a few images of Gamble and have put them into this video set to the song that Charles and I wrote. I'm grateful to Rick Davidson for for his photos and the clip of Gamble performing. Also thanks to Cathey Roberts for the use of her photos of Gamble.
Steve Gillette's Video Tribute to Gamble Rogers
Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen performing "Song for Gamble"
Here's a video of Cindy and me performing the song a few years back at the Cook Shack in North Carolina:
Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen Performing "Song for Gamble"
You can also find the song on our CD "The Light of the Day" available for purchase here.
Here are the lyrics as we sing them:
I remember Gamble Rogers, He was a gentleman with a guitar. He's gone on a little further, A little deeper in the stars. He went down into the water To help to save a drowning man, And he left this world holding out his hand. He was a master of the microphone Had a subtle wisdom with a southern tone Miss'ippi John and Agamemnon Jones, He had that magic in his hands. He played the old songs and they still ring true He was a poet and philosopher too. He said life is just what happens to you While you're making other plans. Chorus He had the gift of innocence And a fondness for the key of "E". He always had that air of thankful dignity. And from the Tradewinds to the Troubadour He was a celebrated raconteur He left 'em laughing by the backstage door, Left 'em cryin' out for more. Chorus
© 1994, Fourshadow Songs, BMI