My song today is ‘Coward of the County'. This song was written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler. It was recorded by American country music singer Kenny Rogers. The song was released in November 1979 as the second single from Rogers' multi-platinum album ‘Kenny’. It became a major crossover hit, topping the ‘Billboard Country’ chart, and reaching Number 3 on the ‘Hot 100 Chart’. It also topped the ‘Cash Box’ singles chart and was a Top 10 hit in numerous other countries worldwide topping the chart in Canada, the UK, and in Ireland, where it stayed at Number 1 for six consecutive weeks.
The narrator sings about his ward and nephew Tommy, a young man with a prominent reputation for never standing up for himself; his pacifism earned him the derisive nickname ‘Yellow’ from others throughout the county, but the narrator hints that he always felt there was something about Tommy that others did not see.
Tommy's non-violent attitude was greatly influenced by his father who died in prison when Tommy was ten years old; during his last visit his father, from his deathbed, pleads with Tommy to not make the same mistakes he made, telling him that ‘turning the other cheek’ is not a sign of weakness, and advising him, "Son, you don't have to fight to be a man".
Years later, Tommy is in a relationship with a woman named Becky who loves and accepts him as he is. One day while Tommy was at work, the three Gatlin Brothers assault Becky and gang-rape her. When he returns home and finds Becky crying and worse for wear, he is faced with the dilemma of having to choose between defending Becky's honour or upholding his father's plea to "walk away from trouble when he can".
Realizing he cannot ignore his predicament, Tommy goes to the barroom where the Gatlin gang out, but they only laugh at him when he walks in. After one of them meets him halfway across the floor Tommy turns around, and they assume he is going to walk away yet again until he stops and locks the front door. Fuelled by his long-bottled-up aggression, Tommy cuts loose and furiously fights all three Gatlin boys, leaving none of them standing by the time he left. The lyrics are ambiguous as to whether the Gatlin boys were dead or just unconscious, or if it was a gunfight or a fistfight.
Tommy then reflects on his late father's plea, addressing him respectfully that while he did his best to avoid trouble, he hopes his father understands that sometimes you have got to fight when you're a man.
To be branded a coward was one of the greatest burdens to bear when I was growing up during the 1950s and 60s. The ‘Second World War’ was still not far enough away to have forgotten the many soldiers and civilians who had given up their lives in defence of Great Britain. As Hitler’s powerful Germany seized control of more countries, only Great Britain stood up to the tyrant and alone declared war after the invasion of Poland.
All the child heroes in the comics and at the cinemas then were characters of great stature like Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, The Lone Ranger, Biggles, etc. These were heroes who were not afraid to face the greatest dangers and mightiest odds. They were our fictional heroes while our fathers, grandfathers and uncles and aunts, and next-door neighbours, who had fought and battled through the ‘Second World War’ were our real-life heroes. Every boy and girl in England aspired to be a hero and the most despised character of all was a ‘coward’!
’As a teenager, one’s peers respected you more when you fought and lost instead of winning unfairly. Teenagers today would laugh at what we considered unfair in the mid-1950s. Using any implement as a weapon would instantly brand any brawler a coward, as would kicking an opponent. You fought with your fists, you fought one-on-one, and when an opponent said ‘enough’ or ‘paid’, you immediately stopped fighting them. If you did not, the crowd would pull you off and call you a coward into the bargain. There was a code for everything we did, even street fighting. And the treason for that was because we were reared to revere honour and bravery as British traits.
While bullying has always taken place ever since envy, anger, power, and peer prestige became the driving force of bullies. Bullies would not be tolerated by a group of peers in my youth, as it militated against the code of honour most Englanders abided by. Bullying cannot exist without the observers remaining complicit by their silence and inactivity as Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men”. As a rule of thumb, there were fewer bullies in the late 1940s and early 1950s than there have been ever since.
I suppose that in many ways, courage is the fear of being thought a coward. I know that during my youth, my greatest fear was fear itself. If ever there was something or someone of whom I was frightened, I would make a point of deliberately confronting my fear. This was a foolhardy thing to do when I think about the risks I unwisely took.
I will never forget the factory chimney at the mill where I worked. The chimney had ladders up each side from top to bottom. A work colleague bet me £5 that I dare not climb it. I had always hated heights, and I naturally declined his wager, but that did not prevent my fear start to fester inside me. Eventually, when I could no longer deny the fear that was generated in my mind by the sheer thought of climbing that mill chimney. A phrase from the 1933 inaugural address of President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the USA came to mind when he announced, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself?”
My fear of climbing the mill chimney disturbed me to the extent that one summer evening after I had worked overtime, before going home at the end of my day, I looked up at the chimney and became angry at the fear that the thought of climbing it had created in me. It was as if my fear was controlling mem and making me less of an independent person. Being a ‘control freak’ and a person who believed himself in charge of his own fate essentially compelled me to climb the chimney, even if I slipped, fell and died in my attempt.
Without telling anyone, I climbed up on the inside of the ladder as I assumed that would be safer. I was wrong. Climbing on the inside of the ladder forced me to look outwards and downwards, which merely increased my fear of heights, besides being harder to climb up than ascending on the outside of the ladder. During the climb, my hands froze with fear a few times as I cursed myself for my foolish pride as I hung onto the rungs for life. The climb was completed in a fear that bordered on terror and rage, both all the way up and back down. I have never been so relieved to feel my feet back on the ground and I lie not when I say, I would not climb the same chimney again for £1 million! That was the last time in my life that I ever behaved in such a dangerous and foolhardy manner.
Was I asked today, “What is the most cowardly thing anyone could do?”, my answer would have nothing to do with courage, fighting, or sheer bravado. It would have nothing to do with physically assaulting another individual, but by insulting the feelings and disturbing the emotions of another person. I would refer to the attack upon the heart of another. Imagine the emotional hurt involved in desiring a close and loving relationship with another who gives you all the signs of wanting the same as you do as they declare their love for you. Then, once they have awakened the love in you, they do not follow through with action that corresponded with their initial declaration of love. Instead of loving you, they leave you high and dry. That to me would represent the most cowardly of all acts.
Love and peace