Florida’s Troubadour

By Harold Fethe and Randy Noles
Despite a debilitating back condition, Rogers enjoyed outdoor activities such as swimming and rowing. Fittingly, a recreation area along Flagler Beach is named in his honor.
Despite a debilitating back condition, Rogers enjoyed outdoor activities such as swimming and rowing. Fittingly, a recreation area along Flagler Beach is named in his honor.

James Gamble Rogers IV was the son of Winter Park’s most renowned architect. Yet, he spurned the family business and became a troubadour, celebrating rural Florida with whimsical stories, evocative songs and skillful fingerpicking.

For nearly 30 years, he presented a genre-defying one-man show that took him from raucous bars to intimate listening rooms to the stage of Carnegie Hall.

In doing so, he left a musical legacy as enduring as any of the buildings designed by his father. Or, for that matter, by other family members who likewise became notable architects.

Rogers’ great-great uncle, also named James Gamble Rogers, designed buildings at Yale, Northwestern and Columbia universities. His grandfather, John Arthur Rogers, had an architecture practice in Daytona Beach.

Rogers’ father, James Gamble Rogers II, designed the Olin Library at Rollins College and the Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee. But he’s best known for his elegant homes, which helped define the residential ambience of Winter Park.

The name James Gamble Rogers III went not to the son of James Gamble Rogers II, as might be expected, but to a grandson of the first James Gamble Rogers, who became an architect in New York. (Indeed, the family has produced six architects named James Gamble Rogers.)

Rogers’ brother, more conveniently (and less confusingly) named Jack, became chairman and CEO of Rogers, Lovelock & Fritz, the firm their father founded.

Known in his youth as “Jimmy,” Rogers died in the Florida surf in 1991, trying to save the life of a Canadian tourist he’d never met. He plunged into high waves despite an arthritic back that made it impossible for him to drive a car in reverse, rest his chin on his chest or even turn his head.

It was an act of bravery that those who knew him say was entirely in keeping with his character.

“Of course, we felt shock and numbness when we heard about [Gamble’s] death,” says Jack Rogers. “I’m sure it never occurred to him not to try and save that man.”

In Rogers’ memory, friends and colleagues launched a long-running folk festival, a memorial foundation and a website where fans continue to express their admiration for his life and work and their sorrow for his death.

The beach where he drowned and a nearby middle school have been named for him. His manager, at his own expense, has ensured that his albums have remained in print.

Now, 25 years later, friends and family still display a mixture of affection, reverence and unresolved grief that causes them to tell the story of his drowning as if the outcome somehow still hung in the balance; as if this time it might end differently.

Should all this seem too mythic for any flesh-and-blood human, then welcome to the world of Gamble Rogers.

Rogers treated his fans like they were the stars, and he had all the time in the world to visit with them. Some of his biggest boosters were journalists, who appreciated his way with words.
Rogers treated his fans like they were the stars, and he had all the time in the world to visit with them. Some of his biggest boosters were journalists, who appreciated his way with words.


Songwriter and performer Mike Cross describes Rogers as a man who “had command of the stage, and could create a world that people could escape into for the time he was performing.”

Distinguished by clear diction and a reedy timbre, Rogers sang like he spoke, using a cultured Southern dialect. His vocals were punctuated by energetic thumb-picked bass lines and buoyed by arpeggio guitar flourishes.

No less a storyteller when he was singing than when he was speaking, Rogers favored songs with narratives. He often challenged his own artistic range, performing songs with storylines that were funny, poignant, heroic or dissolute.

Some songs were traditional and some he wrote himself. Friends wrote others, just for him to perform.

For his tall tales, he painstakingly composed serpentine, alliterative, mock-scholarly sentences and then practiced them before a mirror until he could deliver them in long, energetic bursts. Audiences would start chuckling at the first laugh line, not knowing that seven more would come before the passage ended.

It seemed to his fans as though Rogers was holding forth from the loading dock at Arrandale’s Purina Store in Oklawaha County, the fictional Florida backwater in which many of his tall tales were set.

“Gamble came about as close as anybody could to being onstage what he was in real life,” says Cross. “He didn’t have to hide anything — there was so much good in him that he could just strip naked.”

Lanky, angular and six feet tall, Rogers dressed in a dignified but unpretentious manner for the stage, sporting wool blazers and brown Florsheim Imperial cap-toe shoes.

His work ethic was prodigious and his presentation was by turns frenetic, poignant and sardonic. A tireless performer, he wanted to give his audiences their money’s worth and then some — but still leave them wanting more.

“The contracts [for Rogers’ performances] would just blow your mind,” says Cross. “It would be a five-night run, and the contract would say, ‘Tuesday through Thursday: three 90-minute sets; Friday and Saturday: three 120-minute sets.’ Three sets! Six hours!”

The Rogers brothers enjoyed many adventures growing up in Winter Park. Gamble (standing) and Jack sometimes sailed homemade boats in Lake Maitland.
The Rogers brothers enjoyed many adventures growing up in Winter Park. Gamble (standing) and Jack sometimes sailed homemade boats in Lake Maitland.


If the bred-in-the-bone gallantry of a Southern gentleman can be a tragic flaw, it would be about the only one anyone ever found in Rogers. His manners were old-fashioned and courtly, and he was patient and generous with his audiences.

When fans met him, he treated them as if they were the stars, and he had all the time in the world to visit with them. Emotion-filled messages posted on gamblerogers.org describe such encounters, remembered vividly despite the passage of years or decades.

Friends and fellow artists describe Rogers as someone who had achieved a near-seamless blend of life and art, combining technical excellence with sincere humility, wry humor and a writerly love for language.

“When Gamble showed up at a party, people would greet him or try to get his attention,” says singer Bob Patterson. “He’d acknowledge them, but he’d go around and say hello to the kids and dogs first.”

His sense of obligation to his fellow man was extreme. Rogers’ manager and agent, Charles Steadham, describes a breakfast meeting they had one morning in Micanopy, after his client had just come off the road.

Sleep-deprived and physically wrung out, Rogers wanted to deal quickly with business matters and cover the few remaining miles to his home on Anastasia Island, near St. Augustine.

As they left, a man approached Rogers in the parking lot and asked to speak with him privately. Shortly thereafter, the man returned to his car and drove out of the parking lot with Rogers following along in his well-traveled Mustang.

The man’s wife, it seems, was an avid fan. She was also near death from cancer, and might be bolstered by even a brief visit from her favorite singer. Rogers, never one for half measures, ended up performing a long bedside concert for an audience of two.

He also stood up for other artists. St. Petersburg folksinger Pete Gallagher recalls a controversy 30 years ago over the inclusion of a blues artist in the Florida Folk Festival, which was held annually in White Springs.

At the time, Gallagher was managing renowned African-American singer Mary McClain, a half-sister of Bessie Smith, who usually billed herself as Diamond Teeth Mary. McClain performed a blues set at the event, annoying folk purists who gathered afterward for a wrap-up meeting.

“Everybody who was still around, artists and organizers, would come to this free breakfast and gripe,” recalls Gallagher. “They were griping about Diamond Teeth Mary being allowed to perform. Then Gamble stood up and said, ‘Would you deny your brother a seat at the table?’ There was silence, and all the griping stopped.”


Born in 1937 to energetic and sophisticated parents, Rogers grew up in a loving family of Renaissance-style high achievers. His father, in addition to being an architect, was a world-class swimmer and skilled musician.

“Jimmy and I both played guitar as kids,” recalls Jack Rogers. “That’s because we saw the way our mother looked at our father when he played.”

Rogers’ father had attended Dartmouth, where as a swimmer he qualified for the 1924 “Chariots of Fire” Olympics. He worked in the Daytona Beach architecture practice started by his father before establishing his own firm in Winter Park.

If it seems strange that the son of a prominent architect in a wealthy city could be so convincing in his depictions of rustic characters and remote places, Jack Rogers has an explanation. He and his brother were raised like country boys.

The Rogers clan — parents Gamble and Evelyn and sons Jimmy and Jack — lived on 18 acres called Temple Grove, now an upscale subdivision but then a working orange grove. The brothers came into Winter Park to sell fruit to the Marketessen, a small grocery story on Park Avenue.

They spent summers on a north Georgia farm owned by their mother’s family. There, Jack Rogers says, “we worked alongside people of all kinds, black and white. [They] may have murdered the King’s English, but they were very independent and could do anything.”

Listening to stories told by farmhands inspired his brother and helped shape his stage persona, adds Jack Rogers, who was 18 months Jimmy’s junior. “He could poke fun at these people, but he poked fun at himself, too.”

Back in Winter Park, the boys sailed along the Chain of Lakes, camped on Dog Island and hunted ducks along the St. Johns River. They were inseparable — but, like all brothers, they scuffled from time to time.

Evelyn, says Jack Rogers, told her sons that she didn’t particularly mind if they fought one another. However, she added, “If I ever hear there’s been a fight involving other boys, and you two weren’t on the same side, that’s when you’ll be in trouble.”

Then came a serious medical crisis that tested Rogers’ resolve and shaped the man he was to become. At age 14, he attempted a high jump and missed the sawdust pit, jarring his spine on hard ground.

The accident aggravated a serious but previously undiagnosed case of spinal arthritis, triggering a lifelong struggle with limited mobility and chronic pain.

For therapy, Rogers had to lie on a large stainless-steel reflector, under a heat lamp, for four hours a day. He passed the time practicing the guitar — a record player and a collection of Merle Travis albums was always nearby — and reading.

Although his condition was a serious one, he refused to use it as an excuse for failing to accomplish a goal.

As a Boy Scout, for example, Rogers was one merit badge away from attaining Eagle Scout status. The missing badge was for athletics, which was out of the question, so the scoutmaster offered permission to substitute three other badges involving less strenuous activities. Rogers refused.

“He wanted to do everything straight up, and didn’t want special treatment,” says Jack Rogers, who recounts a harrowing event that reflects his brother’s bravery while eerily presaging his death decades later.

While riding on the family farm, he says, the brothers and some friends tied their horses to a tree on a hilly bank abutting the Chattahoochee River. One horse slipped and plunged into the river, its foreleg tangled its reins.

“We were standing there in shock,” recalls Jack Rogers. “But Jimmy was the first in water. Somehow, he got the bridal loose from this drowning horse, which was going berserk, and he saved the horse. Now, Jimmy wasn’t reckless. He was calculating. But he never hesitated to act.”


After graduating from Winter Park High School in 1955, Rogers enrolled at the University of Virginia. While there, he met several times with Nobel laureate William Faulkner, the school’s writer-in-residence, whom he idolized.

At the end of his junior year, Rogers decided to skip final exams and left Charlottesville to take guitar lessons from jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd in Washington, D.C. Notes Jack Rogers, with his family’s gift for ironic understatement, this resulted in his brother being “excused from the University of Virginia, for at least a year.”

Back in Winter Park, Rogers enrolled at Rollins, where he befriended English professor Edwin Granberry, author, essayist and mentor of Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone With the Wind.

Granberry composed a glowing recommendation that helped his young protégé get into DeLand’s Stetson University, which had a writing program that the venerable O. Henry Award winner thought would be ideal for Rogers.

Jack Rogers still has the letter, carefully folded and typed on onionskin paper. In it, Granberry describes Rogers as possessing “unusual intellectual potential” and being “the most pronounced writing talent of my 25 years in teaching.”

Rogers spent a year at Stetson before putting aside formal higher education for good. He had drifted through four years at three different colleges, majoring in architecture, English and philosophy. Yet he had no degree to show for his effort.

Again he returned to Winter Park and ensconced himself in his parents’ guest house, where he spent the better part of a year working on a book before declaring that he simply wasn’t ready to write anything worth reading.

“I assume it was somewhat autobiographical; a coming-of-age type story,” says Jack Rogers. “I think he destroyed the manuscript. I never saw it.”

He later worked for a year in his father’s architecture office, where he displayed an intuitive gift for design. Jack Rogers believes that his brother could have been a top-tier architect, although only one of his designs saw construction — the Orange County Juvenile Detention Center, in which he used bulletproof glass instead of bars.

Nothing, however, could deter Rogers from performing. He played locally at Dubsdread, Harrigan’s, the Beef & Bottle and a coffeehouse at Rollins.

He also appeared at folk clubs in surrounding cities, most notably the El Prado Lounge in Winter Garden and Stuckey’s Saloon in Lakeland, where he was often joined by friends Paul Champion, a banjo player, and Jim Ballew, a guitarist.

Chip Weston, a local artist who attended Rollins in the ’60s, was playing with a bluegrass group at the college when he met Rogers.

“There weren’t a whole lot of musicians, so it was standard practice to jam with whoever was around on a weekly basis,” says Weston. “Jimmy and his stories and his music were so refreshing because they weren’t trying to reinvent themselves or their music to fit mainstream success.”

But in a family of achievers, was such an esoteric career path acceptable?

“Our parents, especially our dad, understood pretty well,” says Jack Rogers. “My mother was flexible. Neither of them tried to discourage him. But we had uncles who would say, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ Jimmy would just walk out of the room when that happened.”

Rogers, Champion and Ballew moved to Tallahassee and opened a downstairs grotto club called the Baffled Knight. Those three, the Baffled Knights, were the house act.

By 1966, although Rogers was a seasoned performer, fame had continued to elude him. So he took a trip to Massachusetts, where he planned to interview for a job at Cambridge Seven Design, a respected architecture firm.

If architecture was indeed his destiny, then at least he needed to establish an identity away from Florida, outside his father’s substantial shadow. “I think he would have taken the job,” says Jack Rogers.

The fact that he instead wound up joining a nationally known singing group was, well, serendipitous.


While in Massachusetts, a friend persuaded Rogers to take a side trip to New York City to watch auditions for the Serendipity Singers, a popular folk group that had reached the Top 10 with “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down (Crooked Little Man)” two years earlier.

Rogers, unimpressed with mediocre showings from the other musicians in attendance, borrowed a guitar and ambled onstage. Although it was a spur-of-the-moment performance, he was offered a job singing and playing lead, acoustic and electric guitars.

Because of Rogers’ storytelling skills, he also became the group’s front man, setting the scene for their songs when they appeared on such network mainstays as The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and Hootenanny.

Success offered Rogers a sense of validation, but he soon began to feel restless and out of place. “I was merely a hired gun, so to speak,’’ he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1987. “I simply signed on with an already established group.’’

He left the Serendipity Singers after two years to pursue a solo career, relocating to the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, which had a thriving folk music scene. From there, he built up a circuit of coffeehouses and clubs in St. Augustine, Gainesville and Tallahassee.

Finding that well-crafted acoustic songs weren’t always enough to hold a rowdy crowd’s attention, he honed his storytelling, which would later be described as a combination of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, if either humorist had been a Floridian.

By the early 1970s, Rogers was playing across the U.S. and Canada. In 1974, when he appeared at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, PBS taped his performance for nationwide broadcast. The following year, the network produced a television special, Gamble Rogers: Live at the Exit In, which originated in Nashville.

Indeed, Rogers’ literary bent and subversive approach to Southern humor seemed tailor-made for PBS. He was a current-events commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered in 1976 and 1977 and then again in 1981 and 1982.

One of his monologues, “The Great Maitland Turkey Farm Massacre of 1953” was included in Susan Stamberg’s book, Every Night at Five: The Best of all Things Considered. The riotous recitation can be heard on YouTube.

Rogers also wrote two NPR radio dramas, Good Causes: Confessions of a Troubadour, which aired in 1977, and Earplay, which aired in 1980. A Rogers-scripted television play, The Waterbearer, aired on PBS in 1984 and was rebroadcast twice in 1985.

In the fall of that year, Rogers co-hosted and performed on AT&T Presents Carnegie Hall Tonight, which followed a concert appearance at Carnegie Hall with the legendary Doc Watson, a bluegrass icon and his childhood hero. It was, as far as anyone remembers, the only time Rogers ever performed wearing a tuxedo.

In part because of his PBS affiliation, Rogers gained a following among intellectuals, who appreciated his facility with language and his ability to satirize both rural ignorance and urban pretention in a pointed yet hilarious way.

Journalists were also among Rogers’ biggest fans, describing him as “an American treasure … an awesome talent … a rare and guaranteed treat … worthy of inclusion in the Smithsonian.”

What differentiated Rogers from dozens of would-be Woody Guthries? It had to be the stories. Rogers enlivened his tales of life in Oklawaha County and Snipes Ford, the county seat, with the antics of a host of colorful characters, most notably “Agamemnon Abramowitz Jones,” “Downwind Dave” and “Sheriff Hutto Proudfoot.”

Snipes Ford, where “sorriness” was considered a prime virtue, had little of the precious charm of Lake Wobegone, Garrison Keillor’s frozen outpost of Lutheran virtue “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

By contrast, in Snipes Ford, the center of community activity was the Terminal Tavern, a scurrilous dive “where the good ol’ girls put their earrings on with staple guns and the good ol’ boys know it’s always easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

Rogers once said, “The stories I tell are all true, except the few that are obviously whimsy. Each and every one of the characters in my stories started out representing a specific person. The characters may tend to be outlandish, but their statements resonate with a certain amount of horse sense.”

In the last decade of his career, Jack Rogers says, his brother seemed to have hit his stride. He was flying to gigs instead of piling more miles on his Mustang, and living happily in St. Augustine with his free-spirited wife, Nancy.

He packed clubs and was welcomed as a superstar at folk festivals and storytelling gatherings. He was a niche celebrity, perhaps, but a celebrity nonetheless.

And, most importantly, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, exactly the way he wanted to do it.


One weekend in 1991 at Flagler Beach, the 53-year-old Rogers and his wife returned to their campsite from a four-hour bike ride, tired and ready to go home. The October daylight was waning, heavy weather was coming in and the surf was head-high and dangerous.

The Halloween Storm, a three-hurricane hybrid that sank the sword fishing boat Andrea Gail and inspired Sebastian Junger’s bestselling novel, The Perfect Storm, was only a few days away. Sam Pacetti, a surfer who was also Rogers’ guitar protégé, says, “It was like a washing machine out there.”

It was no day for swimming, but a tourist from Ontario had gone into the water and gotten into trouble. His young daughter ran to Rogers, pleading for someone to help her father.

His arthritis, relentlessly worsening since childhood, had frozen his spine so severely that he’d struggled in the calm water of a swimming pool just weeks before.

Rogers had to know that he couldn’t maneuver in the surf on his own. Yet he stripped to his undershirt and shorts, grabbed an air mattress from under a sleeping bag and started into the water.

As minutes ticked by, park ranger Chuck McIntire, a strong swimmer, joined Rogers and another would-be rescuer. McIntire swam past Rogers, who signaled to him that he was still all right.

As McIntire continued outward, working the undertow to reach the Canadian, a massive wave ripped Rogers’ air mattress away. His body was found a few hours later.


St. Augustine resident Harvey Lopez describes how he and two friends were enlisted to build Rogers’ casket: “Nancy said, ‘I have a big favor to ask of you. I’d like for you to build a coffin for Gamble.’ What could I say? ‘No problem, when is the funeral?’”

Lopez, Jesse Allen and Brad Kinsey were all boat builders, woodworkers or cabinetmakers. “We decided we were going to build it like a boat,” Lopez says. “We found some old Florida cypress. We planed it out in planks, smoothed it and started putting it together. We stained it an old rosewood color, just like the ‘Rosewood Casket’ song.”

Since you can’t cross the River Styx in a boat without a paddle, the trio also crafted a miniature oar and slipped it inside the coffin.

Tributes poured in from friends and fans. Jimmy Buffett dedicated his Fruitcakes album to Rogers’ memory: “I dedicate this collection of songs to a troubadour and a friend who has gone over to the other side where the guardian angels dwell and has, in all likelihood, become one.”

The state Legislature honored Florida’s quasi-official musical ambassador by creating the Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, a 144-acre park on Flagler Beach between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.

St. Johns County opened Gamble Rogers Middle School near St. Augustine in 1994, and the Division of Cultural Affairs named Rogers to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1998.

Rogers is buried in Winter Park’s Palm Cemetery, beneath a marble headstone that reads “Florida’s Troubadour.” Nancy, who died of cancer in 2005, is buried beside him.

But Rogers’ legacy lives on. Each May, a confederation of Rogers aficionados organize and stage the Gamble Rogers Festival, a St. Augustine hootenanny that commemorates his life and work and attracts performers whose style and personal history relate to Rogers’ own.

Yet, despite the popular show business cliché, not one of them so far has suggested that they are, or know who will be, “the next Gamble Rogers.”

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in a 2013 edition of Winter Park Magazine. But it has been updated based on new interviews with friends and family members. Harold Fethe is a former biopharmaceutical executive now working as a writer and guitarist. Gamble Rogers’ personal manager, Charles Steadham, introduced Fethe to Rogers in the 1970s. Randy Noles is editor and publisher of Winter Park Magazine.

The Gamble Rogers Memorial Foundation, based in Gainesville, was established by Rogers’ longtime manager, Charles Steadham, to preserve the folksinger’s memory and his music. On the foundation’s website, gamblerogers.com, you can order his CDs, watch performance videos and read about his life. A guestbook allows fans to reconnect and share memories. The foundation also plans to produce a network-caliber video documentary and a 30-year retrospective CD compilation of Rogers’ songs.

During performances, it seemed to his fans as though Rogers was holding forth from the loading dock at Arran­dale’s Purina Store in fictional Oklawaha County.
During performances, it seemed to his fans as though Rogers was holding forth from the loading dock at Arran­dale’s Purina Store in fictional Oklawaha County.

The Square Root of Sorriness


Down home there lived a man so lazy he refused either to work or to speak. An unwillingness to work was not uncommon along Bean Creek. From time to time, a man might forsake his responsibilities temporarily, soon to return to his appointed rounds in chastened reaffirmation. So, in light of past experience, this particular instance of dropping out was accepted by the community as just another benign aberration, and an amusing one at that.

“At least he can’t get no bedsores in that hammock,” said Bill.

“Listen to that little bell ringin’,” said Dave.

“I wouldn’t work neither, if I had all them gals to wait on me,” said Leon.

So, as the days spun into weeks, the man’s laziness remained the central object of his neighbors’ concern, while his unwillingness to speak was seen as a singularly humorous adjunct to his laziness overall, a mere anomalous stunt.

“It’s got to be a mighty big cat, got his tongue,” said Bill.

“It’s a fact that a man who won’t work is sorry,” said Dave.

“Well then, the man who won’t work or talk either one must be the square root of sorriness,” said Leon.

There you have it: a man who declined to lift a finger in the service of his own family, remaining, in the purest sense, stationed in stone-silent recumbency in a hammock tended by his eldest child, a girl of 8, whose younger sister daily hand-fed him lemon ices and sweetbreads, the two girls also fanning his uncloudy brow by turns with a plaited palmetto fan he had filched from some churchhouse in the time before his stasis.

Month after month, this exhibition of whimsical slothfulness bloomed in the consciousness of the community: the spectacle of a prodigal layabout who, in utter indifference to all canons of decency and convention, remained hammock-slung and mute, suffering his brother-in-law to tend the fields by day, his sister to manage the accounts by night, and his grievously put-upon wife to minister to all their other shared worldly concerns.

“These others so labored in his stead, that he might loll pendulant, dandled by the hands of trusting children.” This phrase had rolled off the honeyed tongue of Jeremiah Proudfoot, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Bean Creek, who otherwise referred to the subject of his sermon as “torsionless these last many months…flaunting, flaunting his indolent example…this contemptuous sluggard, a corporeal mass exhibiting the neurological constitution of a pelt.”

The Proudfoot sermon, though not exactly a model of balanced perspective, seemed a fair enough assessment, coming as it did a full four years after its subject had been, as one parishioner said, “taken with the strangeness.” After church that Sunday, the talk had continued.

“At least he ain’t gone to wearin’ no di-dee,” said Bill.

“They say his girls knocked off to go shopping last week and the hammock swung by itself till they come back home,” said Dave.

“Still and all, he had ‘em tie the dinner bell to the hammock where it could be heard clean back to the kitchen,” said Leon. “They say it rang two and a half hours straight.”

In any event, it was right after this sermon that the vigil began. Then, and each day thereafter for a great long time, neighbors and townsmen alike would congregate in the pecan grove that stood bordering the sluggard’s porch yard.

By late afternoon they would drift in, joining one another by twos and threes, milling murmurous and jocular among the shadow-splayed trunks, their number swelling with the approach of evening, now teeming, now breaking apart and re-forming amiably into loose knots and clusters of witnesses who surveyed the house, the porch, the distantly creaking hammock with its lumplike burden, the comings and goings of the now half-grown girls and the dimming figures of the wife or brother-in-law, remonstrating to no avail.

“Better’n watching haircuts,” said Bill.

“Sorry is as sorry does,” said Dave.

“Live an’ let live,” said Leon.

No one could ever say afterward just what changed the attitude of the witnesses, at first so diffident in their manner and so seemly, or why exactly they were moved to action. There were no crop failures. There was no pestilence, no hideous curse, no crisis come over the land to prompt the populace to offer up an object of propitiation.

Neither did any one person inveigh against the man in the hammock. It just happened one day that everything changed. That body of loosely constituted onlookers suddenly became a congress of rigid and palpable intent. Perhaps a drift toward group resolve had been constant yet unperceived from the very beginning, like the imperceptible carry of glacial ice. Certainly the result, when it came, was as cold and as incontrovertible:

The pecan grove, so long a sanctum of quacks and curiosity seekers, became charged with avid stewards of propriety. All at once, the witnesses began trickling out from among the trees, grouping themselves at the border of grove and lawn.

‘’Lord a’ mercy, look at that,’’ said Bill. ‘’What could they be up to?’’

‘’Lookin’ for exercise, I guess,’’ said Dave. ‘’For the best part of three years now, they ain’t moved much more than him on the porch.’’

‘’I been expectin’ them to bring up their own hammocks and dinner bells and settle in just any time now,’’ said Leon.

The body of witnesses swelled and clotted silently at the foot of the lawn, then bore onward to the porch and massed expectantly at the rail. The wife, the girls, and the brother-in-law froze stock still, stifled and distrustful. A spokesman for the group stood forth and spoke:

‘’Rise up, Brother! Rise up and turn those idle hands to useful labor! For don’t you understand how it is man’s common lot to live by the sweat of his brow for the bread of his table? Take these things into account and rise up, Brother, rise up now!’’

But he did not rise up, nor did he break his monumental silence, so that these others turned away dispirited, and the community became widely rent with schism. Still, there were prayer meetings on his behalf. There were healings and further vigils, but all to no avail. The subject of these wholesome solicitations remained stationed as before in fathomless and defiant recumbency.

Now, certain men of the community began to draw furtively apart from the salutary constraints of their womenfolk, conjoining themselves in secret society so as to become possum-eyed, clinch-mouthed and jurisprudent. Finally, these men came before the sluggard and reasoned with him anew:

‘’Brother, this is your day of reckoning! Either you rise up and work, or at least make account of your sorry ways with speech…or, mind you now, we’ll take you out and bury you alive!’’

The wind whispered among the pecan trees at the foot of the lawn. The vigilantes waited, fretful and remorseless. The recumbent one loomed before them, recalcitrant as some seagoing mammal enigmatically beached. At last, the vigilantes unhooked the hammock at either end and bore it still swinging down the porch steps and across the yard, settling their burden into a wagon-borne coffin. They took to the roadway then, commencing a peeved and mordant procession.

Halfway to the burying ground, a stranger met them coming along the road. Noting the peculiar fixity of these others and the lidless casket with its strange contents, he inquired, ‘’What is the nature of your curious burden, and where might you be bound?’’

Came the reply: ‘’This man has been judged by his peers to be in contempt of everything and everybody. He’s so damned lazy that for seven years he has laid up in that very hammock. He won’t work. He won’t even talk. So we’re going to bury him alive.’’

‘’You mustn’t do such a thing,’’ exclaimed the stranger, ‘’for every man is lazy in his own way. I suggest that this one might be redeemed, not through threat of punishment, but by direct appeal to his inmost human heart. Suppose that I make him an offer…an offer couched in charity. Being a creature of feelings like you and I, he may well respond to the prospect of loving kindness. I think it’s worth a try.’’

The stranger drew nigh the casket and appraised the inscrutable creature within. He began speaking in a sonorous voice:

‘’Hear me now, and hear me well. I have 500 bushels of corn I’ll give you. Think on that, my good man! Why, you can have this corn milled for your family’s sustenance, or you can lay it by as provender for your livestock…then again, you may wish to barter some of it for household necessities, or you may choose to sell part of it for profit so as to render up taxes on your homestead. Well, what do you say to that, my stubborn friend?’’

And now, to the ears of that rapt company surrounding the wagon came a sound as foreign and incredible, as terrifyingly arcane as the groaning rend and tear of some quaking continental groundmass tortured into movement by the core flux of the very earth itself. From the coffin emanated a voice, a voice sepulchral.

‘’That corn…’

‘’Yes, yes,’’ cried the giver of gifts blissfully. ‘’Five hundred bushels. What about the corn?’’

‘’Is it shucked?’’

‘’No,’’ cried the other in consternation. ‘’It’s not shucked.’’

‘’Drive on,’’ came the voice from the casket. ‘’Drive on, drive on, drive on…”

Editor’s note: This story by Gamble Rogers, then 50, was published in Florida magazine in 1987, along with a profile of the St. Augustine troubadour and storyteller. The story is a good example of his unique mix of highbrow language and rural characters, a blend of gentle humor and what he called “fifty-cent words.”

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