Kenny Rogers: Promethean Giver of Truth

There was a time in my life when the songs that influenced me most were the hymns we sang at Catholic Mass.

I am the bread of life,
Those who come to me shall not hunger,
Those who believe in me shall not thirst
No one can come to me
Unless the Father beckons.

And I will raise him up
And I will raise him up
And I will raise him up
On the last day

Those days are all but over, but I miss it sometimes. I loved the music at church, especially when they’d haul out the choir every once in a while. The music was always the best part of Mass for me. I used to copy the notes out of the hymn book to pass the time, measure by measure, into a little notebook my mom kept in her purse. I didn’t know what they meant exactly, but it felt like a productive task at the age of 5. But the lyrics… These songs were so abstract. Bread? It was good for Communion, good for Easter, but a man cannot live on the Bread of Life alone, right?

There was also, of course, Schoolhouse Rock.

Interplanet Janet, she’s a galaxy girl,
A solar system Ms. from a future world,
She travels like a rocket with her comet team
And there’s never been a planet Janet hasn’t seen,

A bit weird, maybe. How about:

I’m just a bill.
Yes, I’m only a bill.
And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it’s a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It’s a long, long wait
While I’m sitting in committee,
But I know I’ll be a law some day
At least I hope and pray that I will
But today I am still just a bill.

But there was a golden great I’ve been reminded of recently that taught me so much more.

On a warm summer’s evenin’ on a train bound for nowhere,
I met up with the gambler. We were both too tired to sleep.
So we took turns a starin’ out the window at the darkness
‘Til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.

He said, “Son, I’ve made a life out of readin’ people’s faces,
And knowin’ what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.
And if you don’t mind my sayin’, I can see you’re out of aces.
For a taste of your whiskey I’ll give you some advice.”

So I handed him my bottle and he drank down my last swallow.
Then he bummed a cigarette and asked me for a light.
And the night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression.
Said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

Ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
‘Cause ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”

And when he’d finished speakin’, he turned back towards the window,
Crushed out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.
And somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even.
But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep.

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. This is one of my all-time favorites. This was the stuff of real life. Metaphors that gave me some insight into the grown-up world — even if I didn’t know exactly what he was singing about at the time. I used to imagine a satanic, horned man dealing cards to a table of cowboys whenever I heard Kenny sing: “There’ll be time enough for counting when the demon’s done.”

(I must have had a little too much of the Bread of Life.)

Still, I was astute enough to gather valuable lessons about:

• Cross-country railroad etiquette
• The joys of traveling without a destination
• How to share a smoke
• The value of a sip of whiskey
• Winning gracefully (you never count your money…)
• Knowing what to throw away (and what to keep)
• The unpredictability of life
• The inevitablilty of death, and the ability to look at it without sentimentality
• And most importantly, how to tell a story

There’s another famous attempt at a similar theme:

I’m a gambler, and I will take you by surprise
Gambler, I’ll aim this straight between your eyes
Gambler, yeah I know all the words to say
‘Cause I’m a gambler, I only play the game my way, yeah

Not nearly as informative, I think. But it’s a lot of fun, and you can dance to it.

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