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589 Topics: Famous Americans – Kenny Rogers; Elements of Style; over time; pronouncing “rushing” versus “Russian”

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 589.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 589. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about the American singer Kenny Rogers and country western music. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Today we’re talking about the country music singer Kenny Rogers. Country music is a popular kind of music in the U.S that originally was associated with the rural, or non-urban, parts of America. “Urban” (urban) refers to the cities, and “rural” (rural) refers to the areas outside of the cities. American country music, then, often has themes and topics that are related to life in rural areas. Rural areas are sometimes called “the country” – not to be confused with the meaning of “country” as it relates to a nation. We talk about the country of the United States or the country of France.

This kind of “country” music, however, refers to music that is popular in, and that has topics about, rural life in the United States. That doesn’t mean that the only people who listen to country music are those in small towns or on farms in rural areas. It just means that that is where the main focus of the music is, in terms of its topics. There are many people who live in large cities, especially in what we call “the South” – which is actually the southeastern part of the U.S. – that like country music. My brother loves country music, and he lives in a city in Minnesota in the northern part of the U.S.

So, country music is not a term meant to describe where all of the people who listen to this music live. Country music does have some similarities with other kinds of popular music. You will find a lot of guitar music, or guitar playing, in country music just as you would in other popular forms, such as rock music. Country music also often features what we call a “fiddle” (fiddle). A “fiddle” is just another name for a violin, but it’s one that is used to play folk music.

You will also find people referring to violins as “fiddles ” when they describe traditional folk music from, say, Ireland or other countries that have folk music traditions. Country music is sort of a folk music tradition in the U.S., and it has fiddles as part of the music. Country music is also known, like a lot of traditional folk music, for telling stories. The focus of the music is on telling a story that conveys or communicates an emotion.

Our topic today is Kenny Rogers, who was famous for telling stories in his music. Kenny Rogers was born in the state of Texas in 1938. Texas is in the southern part of the U.S. and a place where country music is very popular. Rogers grew up in a very poor family and music was always important to him. When he was in high school, he began playing in his first band, his first group of musicians. They were called, interestingly enough, the Scholars. A “scholar” (scholar) is a very highly educated person, usually someone who does research or investigations, but it’s also a term we could use to describe a very good student.

Rogers did not have a lot of success in music when he first started, although in 1955 he got what we would call a “big break” (break). A “break” is an opportunity that you get to do something famous or perhaps to make a lot of money. Rogers’s break came when he performed on a very popular television show that was all about popular music, called American Bandstand. This was a show where musicians could sing their songs while the audience danced to their music. This helped make Rogers well known, and in 1958 he signed a contract, a legal agreement, with a record company called Carlton Records.

We usually use the expression “He was signed to a music label” (label). “To be signed to” means simply that he had a contract with this music company, or music “label” as they’re sometimes called. During the 1960s he continued to perform music, but was never as popular as he really wanted to be. He was a member of a couple of what were called “minstrel groups.” A “minstrel” (minstrel) is a musician who also sings or speaks poetry while playing an instrument such as a guitar.

It was through the group First Edition, however, that Rogers really became a well-known singer. The name of the group, in fact, was “Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.” They recorded songs such as “Just Dropped In,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” and “Reuben James.” These songs as well as this group helped make Rogers famous in the late 1960s on into the early 1970s.

By 1976, the group that Rogers was in decided to split up. “To split (split) up” is a two-word phrasal verb meaning “to separate” – for each person to go his own way. When a musical group “splits up,” the group no longer performs together. Usually when this happens, one or more of the people in the group will start their own group or start what we would call a “solo (solo) career.” The person will go out and sing by himself. “Solo” means by yourself, or alone. When the Beatles split up, each of the singers went on to have their own solo career, some more successful than others.

We also use that phrasal verb, by the way, when a romantic couple decide to end their relationship. We say they “split up.” The verb “to split” was once popular slang for “to leave” or “to leave quickly.” We don’t use that quite as much anymore in that sense. It was more popular back in the ’70s, or perhaps even the ’60s.

Well, we’re talking about the ’70s and Kenny Rogers when his band split up. Rogers started recording his own songs and became extremely successful, much more popular as a solo singer – or “solo artist,” we might call him – than he was as part of his band. He eventually sold more than 120 million records around the world and became one of what we would call the “best-selling musicians of all time” – a musician that sold a very large number of records.

It was in 1978 that Rogers recorded what would be his most famous and popular song, the song I’m going to talk about a little today. It was called “The Gambler.” A “gambler” (gambler) is a person who plays what we would call “games of chance” or “luck,” such as poker or blackjack or craps, which is a game using dice. Games of chance are very popular in certain cities such as Las Vegas, where gambling, betting money, is legal.

This is a song about a gambler, an old man who has spent his whole life gambling. The song “The Gambler” represents what Kenny Rogers and country music does best, which is to tell a story through the song. This is a story about an old gambler trying to teach a young man, who’s having some problems in his life, some lessons about what it means to win and lose in the game of life, if you will.

The song begins:

On a warm summer’s evening

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

The boredom overtook us,

And he began to speak

Notice I’m giving it a little country feel. When, sometimes, people sing country music, they use a little bit of the accent that is more common in the southern United States or perhaps in some rural areas of the U.S. The song begins, “On a warm summer’s evening, on a train bound for nowhere.” “To be bound for” somewhere means to be going in a certain direction. “I am bound (bound) for Dallas.” That means I am going in the direction of Dallas – in my car, in an airplane, or on a train.

So, these two men are sitting on a train. It’s at night. They are “bound for nowhere.” Well, of course they’re actually bound for somewhere, but the idea here is that they don’t seem, either one of them, to be looking forward to going to any particular place, though the train of course is bound for somewhere. The man in the song is the young man and he says he “met up with,” meaning he met this gambler.

He and the gambler were “too tired to sleep” so they “took turns a-starin’,” he says. “A-starin’” is just a poetical way of saying “staring.” “To stare” (stare) means to look at something for a long time and to continue looking at it. To stare at another person is normally considered rude or impolite. It’s not a nice thing to do. But in this case, the two men are just staring out the window, looking at nothing.

Finally they get so bored that they decide to talk to each other, and the old gambler says something first. He speaks. Noticed the expression in the song, “the boredom overtook us.” If something “overtakes (overtakes) you,” it means it suddenly affects you. It affects you in a very powerful way. Normally we use this verb when we’re talking about a strong emotion. I was watching a movie and the emotion overtook me, or sadness overtook me, and I began to cry. In this case, boredom overtook them and they began to speak.

The man, the old gambler speaks first. He says, “Son, I’ve made a life out of reading people’s faces.” The word “son” here doesn’t mean that the man is his father. In some communities, people use the word “son” to refer to a much younger person. An older person might say “son.” It’s not as popular anymore. I probably wouldn’t use it myself, but it is something you will see in old movies or read in an old book, perhaps.

This man says that he’s “made a life out of reading people’s faces.” “To read someone’s face” is to understand what that person is thinking or feeling by looking at him. Now remember, this man is a gambler, and if you are a gambler playing cards such as poker, you need to be able to look at other people and look at their reactions to see if they have good cards or not.

He says he’s “made a life out of reading people’s faces, knowing what the cards were by the way they held their eyes.” The “cards” (cards) are the rectangular things you use to play games such as poker. We call them “playing cards.” And as I just mentioned, a good gambler will be able to look at a person’s face, especially their eyes, to see how they react when they look at their cards.

The gambler continues, “So if you don’t mind me saying,” meaning if it doesn’t bother you that I tell you this, “I can see you’re out of aces” (aces). An “ace” is one of the playing cards that has the highest value. When the man in the song says he can see the other young man is “out of aces,” he means he seems to be a man who doesn’t have a lot going for him or perhaps has had some bad luck or is in some sort of trouble. “To be out of” something means not to have something, so “to be out of aces” means to be, in this case, unlucky or perhaps in trouble.

The gambler then says, “For a taste of your whiskey, I’ll give you some advice.” The old man is asking the young man to give him some whiskey, some alcohol, and if he does, the gambler will give him some advice about how to improve his life. The young man then sings:

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 faced lost all expression

He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy

You gotta learn to play it right

There’s a little of my country singing for you. He says, “So I handed him my bottle.” “To hand” (hand) someone something is to give someone something with your hand. In this case, he gives him his bottle, or container of whisky. The old gambler “drank down his last swallow” (swallow). A “swallow” is a small amount of liquid; in this case, it means the old gambler drank all of his alcohol, the rest of his alcohol, his whiskey.

Then the old gambler “bummed a cigarette.” “To bum” (bum) something is to ask someone for something, to ask someone to give you something. Often this is a word that is used as a noun to describe a poor person who goes around asking people for food or money. It’s not a very nice term, however. We don’t usually use it that much anymore, but as a verb it means simply to beg or to ask someone for something.

So, the old gambler asked the man, the young man, for a cigarette, and he asked him “for a light,” meaning he asked him to light the cigarette so he can smoke it. “Then,” he says, “the night got deathly quiet,” meaning very quiet, and the old gambler’s “face lost all expression” – that means his face became very serious. He then said, “if you’re gonna play the game, boy,” meaning if you are going to play the game of life, “you gotta learn” – you have to learn – “to play it right.”

He then describes life in the terms of a poker game, a game of playing cards. Now we hear the chorus or the repeating part of the song.

You’ve 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 sitting at the table

There’ll be time enough for counting

When the dealing’s done

“You’ve got to know when to hold them.” “To hold them” means to keep your cards, to keep playing, not to stop playing. When you’re playing the game of poker, if you decide you don’t have very good cards and you want to stop and stop betting, you “fold” (fold). “To fold” means you say, “I don’t have very good cards so I’m quitting this particular game.”

The gambler also says you have to “know when to walk away” and “when to run.” “To walk away” from something means to leave something, to stop doing something. He also says you have to “know when to run,” meaning you have to know when to move very quickly away from something – to stop it immediately, perhaps. He says, “You never count your money” – you never sit and count how much money you’ve won – “when you’re sitting at the table,” meaning when you’re in front of everyone else who’s also playing the game. (Normally these games are played at a table.)

Instead, he says, “There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.” “There’ll be time enough” means there’ll be enough time, or sufficient time, to count up your money to see how well you’ve done in life, “when the dealing’s done.” “To deal” (deal) means to give people cards in a game. The person who gives everyone cards in, say, a game of poker is called the “dealer,” and the verb is “to deal.”

I think what the song is saying here is that in life, we shouldn’t focus on how much progress we’ve made or how well we’re doing, especially in front of other people. Instead, we should wait until perhaps life is at its end to worry about how much we made or didn’t make, how much success we had or didn’t have. Well, that’s my understanding of the story anyway.

The song was so famous when it was released in the late 1970s that they actually made a movie about it for television in 1980, and Kenny Rogers played the gambler. The movie was popular enough that the gambler went on to teach other young men about life in four other movies. I have to say, I’ve never seen any of the Kenny Rogers movies.

Kenny Rogers continued to record music and had other popular songs, but this song “The Gambler” was clearly the very best one that he wrote. He became very successful as a musician, and in 2012 he published an autobiography, or story of his own life. He received many awards over the years.

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame fairly recently. “To be inducted” (inducted) means to be made a member of some group, to be formally made a member of a certain group. A “Hall of Fame” is a group of people who are the very best at what they do, and Kenny Rogers was certainly one of the very best country music singers of the late twentieth century.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Vladimir (Vladimir) in Ukraine. Vladimir wants to know about a book that is well known among American writers called The Elements of Style, by the authors Strunk and White. The question has to do in part with whether this book is valid or still useful for the kind of English we write today. It’s an interesting question, Vladimir.

The original book, The Elements of Style, was written by William Strunk Jr. back in 1918. However, the book that is most well known is a revision of that book by one of the great American writers of the mid twentieth century, E. B. White. That book was published in 1959 – much more recently – and is called Strunk and White by the two authors.

The book is short – it’s only about 85 pages – and while it does reflect the writing style of the mid-twentieth century more than the early twenty-first century, I think it is still an excellent guide for people who are writers. That doesn’t mean that everything in the book is still followed by writers, but most good writers believe that the advice in the book is still very applicable to English writing today, in particular American English writing.

One of my favorite rules in the book is rule number 17. It has just three words in it. It is “Omit needless words.” “To omit” (omit) means get rid of, don’t include. “Needless” means things you don’t need, that aren’t necessary. I love that chapter. “Omit needless words.” In your writing, leave out anything that isn’t necessary to communicate your message.

So, although some writers have criticized The Elements of Style as being a book with rules that don’t always apply to current American English, I think it’s still a wonderful book, and you would benefit, if you are serious about writing in English, by taking a look at it, at least if you are an advanced writer.

Now, the best way to improve your writing, however, is not to read Strunk and White’s book, however good it is. The best way to improve your writing is of course to do a lot of reading. Reading gives you the material. It gives you the source. It gives you the language, the vocabulary that will allow you to be a good writer.

There are many people who read a lot and who are just okay writers, but there is no great writer who hasn’t read a lot. Writing comes from lots and lots of reading. So focus your time on reading more than studying rules, I think, at this point in your language development, and you will be much better off for it.

Our next question comes from Milan (Milan), originally from Czechoslovakia, when that was a country, now living in Ireland. The question has to do with the words “over time.” Well, there are actually two expressions, or two terms, here. One is “over time” as two words, and one is “overtime” as one word. When “over time” is two words, it means gradually or little by little – changing over a period of weeks, months, or years. We might say, for example, that “over time, taking this drug will improve your health.” It won’t happen immediately. It won’t happen right away, but over time, it will make a difference.

“Overtime” as one word refers to a period of time you work beyond the normal hours you normally work. So, if you normally work from eight o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon, and your boss wants you to work four more hours, that four additional hours would be called “overtime,” at least in some jobs that pay you by the hour.

“Overtime” is also a term used in sports to refer to additional playing time after the normal time that a game normally lasts. So, in the game of American football, if the score is tied, if both teams have the same point total, there is an overtime period where the teams continue playing. That’s also called “overtime,” at least in some sports. When that happens in the world’s greatest sport, which is baseball, those are called “extra innings.” Baseball games, at least professional baseball games, are never tied, or almost never tied. You always play until there’s a winner because that’s the way God wanted it.

Our final question comes from Dennis (Dennis), also from Ukraine. Dennis wants to know the difference between two words in English. The first word is (rushing). That word we pronounce “rushing.” It comes from the verb “to rush” (rush), which usually means to move very quickly or do something very quickly.

The other word Dennis wants to know how we pronounce in English is (Russian), “Russian.” “Russian” is a word describing a thing or a person from the country of Russia, of course. So, we have “rushing” and we have “Russian.” “Rushing” (ing), “Russian” – a guy from Moscow.

There is a slight difference, at least if we pronounce it carefully, if we pronounce it slowly. “Rushing,” “Russian,” “rushing,” “Russian.” But in normal conversation, when you’re speaking quickly, it could easily come out the same. I talked to a couple of Russians yesterday. “I’m sorry I’m rushing, but I have to get to my job.” In casual conversation, the pronunciations might seem very similar because we’re speaking quickly.

We are, in a way, pronouncing (rushing) by leaving off the “g” sound, and that’s not unusual in informal English. People often, when they pronounce a word that ends in “ing,” leave off the pronunciation that you would normally get when “n” and “g” are together. So, instead of saying, “I am cooking,” they would say, “I’m cookin’.” “Cooking,” “cookin’.” That’s an informal way of pronouncing or saying those words.

What do we call a man from Moscow who’s in a hurry? A “rushing Russian.”

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thanks for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2016 by the Center for Educational Development.

country music – a type of music from the southern part of the United States often played on the guitar, fiddle, and keyboard and known for telling stories in the lyrics (words of a song)

* When LeeAnn feels homesick, she listens to some country music to remind her of her family in Arkansas.

to sign – for a company to hire a musician or band to produce music recordings; for an organization to hire an athlete to play on its team

* Mira hasn’t been signed by a record company, but she’s still playing shows and trying to get noticed.

minstrel – a musician who sings or speaks poetry and plays a stringed instrument, such as a guitar

* The minstrel group walked through the village singing songs and dancing during the festival.

solo – alone; by oneself

* She enjoys traveling solo and being able to go where she wants to.

gambler – a person who plays games of chance or luck to try to win money

* The gambler sat down at the table to play cards with the other three men.

bound for – traveling in a certain direction; heading to a particular place

* Are all of you bound for Miami or are some of you continuing to other cities abroad?

boredom – a feeling of tiredness because one is not busy and not interested in what is going on around one

* Jal felt intense boredom while listening to the professor’s long and uninteresting lecture.

to overtake (one) – for something to affect one suddenly and powerfully

* While in the old house, we were overtaken by a strong feeling of fear.

ace – one of the playing cards in a deck of cards with a high value, often allowing a player to win a game

* I beat you because I have three aces and you only have two kings.

to bum (something) off (someone) – to ask someone to give one something for free, often as a favor or a friendly gesture

* I left my pack of gum at home. Can I bum a piece off you?

to fold – in the card game poker, to admit that one cannot win with the cards one has and to give up

* Opal folded quickly because she had been dealt bad cards.

to induct – to admit someone formally into a position, organization, or club

* As a child, he had dreamed of being so good at baseball that he would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his many achievements in the sport.

Elements of Style – a reference book and manual with advice for improving writing, especially for developing a plain, clear style

* Our English teacher had us read the Elements of Style to help us become better writers.

over time – gradually, little by little; progressing or changing over a period of time

* It’s hard learning to play the cello, but over time, it will become easier to produce beautiful sounds from the strings.

to rush – to move or do something very quickly and in a hurry; to cause or force someone to do something too quickly; to do something too quickly and often with little attention or care

* If we rush, we can still get there in time for the 10:30 showing of this movie.

What Insiders Know
Gamblers Anonymous

People who have a “gambling” addiction are “driven to” (feel that they must act in a particular way) risk large amounts of money on games of chance. Some of them gamble at “casinos” (businesses where people risk money in card games or electronic machines), while others gamble on horse races or other sports events. When “taken to an extreme” (done in a big way, without limits), gambling can “interfere with” (have a negative effect on) family relationships and lead to “theft” (stealing), legal problems, job loss, “depression” (intense feelings of sadness), and even “suicide” (attempts to kill oneself).

“Gamblers Anonymous” is a “12-step program” (a program that follows 12 “principles” (guidelines or ideas) to help people change their behavior) that helps people “overcome” (no longer be affected by something in a negative way) their addiction to gambling. It follows the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous, a program that helps people overcome their addiction to alcohol, and similar organizations. It was founded in Los Angeles, California, in 1957, and today, there are more than 1,000 groups in the United States, plus many more in other countries.

Gamblers Anonymous not only helps members understand and overcome their addiction to gambling, but also helps them “handle” (deal with; manage) the financial problems and legal problems that often “accompany” (come along with; are associated with) gambling. Unfortunately, only about eight percent of people who attend a Gamblers Anonymous meeting “stick with the program” (continue to participate in the program) and “abstain” (not have or do something) from gambling for more than one year.