The Gamble Rogers Festival
by Jennifer Jordan
For those of you who are planning on attending the 12th Annual Gamble Rogers Folk Festival in St. Augustine, Florida on May 4, 5, and 6 of this year, you may know that this festival showcases a variety of musical talent, ranging from Michael Smith, to The Burns Sisters Band, from Amy Carol Webb, to The Cook Trio. You may also know that this festival offers performances by local musicians, contests, arts and crafts, and discounted local accommodations. What you might not know, however, is the story behind Gamble Rogers. It’s not only a tale of talent and tragedy, but also of uncompromised heroism.
James Gamble Rogers IV was born on the last day of January 1937 in Winter Park, Florida. While his father and grandfather were architectural geniuses, Rogers took a path that led him away from architecture and into the open arms of music. He became a folk singing legend – influencing Jimmy Buffet along the way and leading him to dedicate his album, Fruitcakes, to Rogers.
Called a “national treasure” by journalists, Rogers was well known for his songs about Oklawaha, Florida, a fictional town full of colorful characters and stories. He was also known for his guitar playing and uncanny ability to captivate any audience for which he performed. He reintroduced the art of story telling and served as the proverbial father of Florida Folk Music. He also released several albums, some posthumously. His albums included The Lord Gives Me Grace And The Devil Gives Me Style, Sorry is As Sorry Does, Signs of a Misspent Youth, and Good Causes.
Rogers became most revered not for his musical acts but for his act of bravery, an act that ultimately led to his death. In October of 1991, while camping in Flagler Beach, Florida, Rogers heard someone who needed help. He followed the voice to find a man named Raymond Tracey stuck in rough water. Rogers jumped in and made the ultimate sacrifice: he saved the life of Tracey and lost his own life in the process.
Folk singing, unlike other genres of music, does not belong to the young: many folk singers get better with age. Because of this, Rogers, at the time of his death, seemed to be just getting started, leaving the world of folk music to shake its head and wonder what might have been.
For his musical talent, he was inducted to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1987 and posthumously given a Folk Heritage Award in 1993. For his sacrificing act, Rogers was awarded the Kiwanis Award for bravery and the Carnegie Award for heroism. The area of the beach where Rogers met his death was renamed The Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area at Flagler, Beach and a school in St. Augustine was renamed The Gamble Rogers Middle School in St. Augustine. Rogers memory, his songs, and tributes to him also live on at the Gamble Rogers Memorial Foundation, a foundation set up with the purpose of never forgetting a legend.