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Gentleman singer's life his memorial

Memorial is a word we toss around with a frequency so pervasive that it shreds its significance. We are a nation full of memorial highways, buildings, schools and bridges for people, wars and sometimes mercurial ideals.

Like Percy Shelley's Ozymandias, they stand figuratively or literally broken off at the knees and speak as much of futility and the eroding effect of time on memory and stone as they do of remembrance.

Maybe the trend toward memorial events is a better one.

The Gamble Rogers Folk Festival that took place Saturday and Sunday is a good example.

The event, at St. Augustine's state-of-the-art outdoor amphitheater, captured the memory and flavor of the troubadour who died a hero's death trying to save a drowning man, and did it in a way that looks toward both past and future with near-perfect balance.

Rogers was 53 when he drowned in October of 1991 just a few miles away from his St. Augustine home. It was the weekend I would probably have met him for the first time after years of admiring and enjoying his work.

Instead, I watched grizzled folk musicians who had been playing with Rogers for decades pass around recent snapshots of him, transformed by tragedy from keepsakes to heirlooms. He was smiling in every picture.

Rogers was a storyteller, songwriter and musician. He made his mythical Oklawaha County _ a place so backward that the rabbi was named Bubba and the Baptist church had a SWAT team _ so real that people seek it on maps.

He coined phrases like calling Disney World "a $500-million juke box in the honky-tonk of life," and sometimes got so caught up in his own stories that he would forget to sing and nobody would notice.

He wasn't just from St. Augustine, he was St. Augustine: its spires, its bridges and its wind-scrubbed Spanish fort. His tales, songs and character are inextricably woven into the fabric and strength of that city.

Rogers, a one-time member of the Serendipity Singers of 1960s fame, played in so many nightclubs that he sometimes jokingly called himself a whiskey salesman, and a line from one of his songs goes, "I was raised on a pickle, but still I can smile the Lord gives me grace and the devil gives me style."

But in truth the one word that comes up in the first 30 seconds of any discussion of Gamble Rogers is "gentleman." While others huddled in tents at festival campgrounds, Rogers' site would inevitably have _ outdoors _ a sofa, an overstuffed chair, an Oriental carpet and a floor lamp where he dispensed fun, advice, support and friendship to other performers.

Yes, he could joke about a sheriff who wore a pith helmet adorned with an STP sticker and a loincloth made out of truck mud flaps _ but he could also invite others to listen to the sound of candles burning and sing about measuring Irish linen for a shirt in a way that would place you and a city at one with your own place in the world and open your heart to its oneness with past and present.

There is a school named for Rogers, and a state recreation area. But the true acts of memorialization took place at the festival where, for instance, soft-spoken musical director Bob Patterson moved almost unseen among the festival's several venues making sure that performers and audiences alike were pleased and leaving the word "gentleman" often in his wake.

There was continuity in the guitar picking of Sam Pacetti, a young friend of Rogers who is rewriting the book on what is humanly possible for fingers and strings to accomplish, and in the uplifted voices of old performers passing along their skills to young ones.

The state he loved is reflected in the town that has, so far, done Florida right and where the mid-spring sunlight bounces off oak leaves and pine needles through a salt-flavored haze in a way that reminds you that none of us ever really goes away _ at least not far.

On Memorial Day, Rogers will be inducted into the Florida Artist's Hall of Fame, and it will be in the right place on an appropriately named holiday and, for all of fate's trying, only partly posthumously.

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