"Man, I know TWO LINES to every song."

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How cool would it be to know the full lyrics to every song?  I was sitting at a café a month ago, one table over from two people playing poker. (Poker-playing is, by the way, unusual for the cafés I frequent, so this was sort of neat.)

Out of nowhere, both players started singing the chorus from Kenny Roger's "The Gambler":

You've got to know when to hold 'em Know when to fold 'em Know when to walk away...

They smiled. They laughed!

And then they paused. 

One of them continued, haltingly:

Know when to... run? You never... Fun?

And then he exclaimed: "Man, I know two lines to every song!"

How cool would it be to know the full lyrics to every song? 


In fact, let's expand on that:

How powerful would it be to know the full lyrics to every song? How fulfilling and enriching? How much better would you be able to engage with the songwriter's intentions and worldview?

To carry around the collected wisdom of a dozen, even a hundred artists — and be able to draw upon them at any time. Anthropologists tell us that this is the norm in many "pre-literate" societies. It may be the historical par for the course.

Storing scores of songs inside us is our human birthright. 

And most of us let it lie fallow.

Our new kind of school can reverse that.


Poetry buffs often wax eloquent on the joys of memorizing poems. I entirely agree with them — I've committed maybe a dozen poems to heart, and would love to do more.

A new kind of school — a school the cultivates love, mastery, and meaning — will do well to induct kids into the joy of memorizing poetry.

Great songs deserve the same.

And that'll require specific effort.

Frequently-hilarious poet Billy Collins pens the following:

One of the disadvantages of poetry over popular music is that if you write a pop song, it naturally gets into people’s heads as they listen in the car. You don’t have to memorize a Paul Simon song; it’s just in your head, and you can sing along.

With a poem, you have to will yourself to memorize it....

This process—going from deep familiarity to complete mastery—is a challenge and a great pleasure. In repeating different lines, your reading becomes more focused than you’ve ever had before. You become more sensitive to every consonant and vowel.

I agree with all of this, wholeheartedly — except the part where Collins says that memorizing pop song happens automatically.

Well, maybe Collins is able to store Simon and Garfunkel just by listening to 'em: I'm sure not! I've had to work hard to put "Sound of Silence" in my long-term memory.

I've written before about our schools' basic practice of experiencing a song a day. And I've written, too, about where we could get those songs from — and how we can channel this into having kids regularly create songs!

I'd like to add something today:

We should find ways to encourage kids to commit lyrics to their memories. 

I suspect we should never force this to be done to any song the students don't already love — we should only encourage they internalize lyrics to songs they already care about.

We should do something else, too — use this as a chance to teach kids how memory works. 

But I have to admit I don't have any strong sense of how we should do this.

Any thoughts?


(The full lines to "The Gambler", if anyone would like to save themselves a Googlin', are below. Thanks to azlyrics.com, and the great Kenny Rogers!)

On a warm summer's eve 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, he began to speak

He said, "Son, I've made a life Out of readin' people's faces Knowin' what the cards were By the way they held their eyes So if you don't mind me sayin' I can see you're out of aces For a taste of your whiskey I'll give you some advice"

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

You've got to know when to hold 'em Know when to fold 'em Know when to walk away Know when to run You never count your money When you're sittin' at the table There'll be time enough for countin' When the dealin's done

Every gambler knows That the secret to survivin' Is knowin' what to throw away And knowin' what to keep 'Cause every hand's a winner And every hand's a loser And the best that you can hope for Is to die in your sleep"

And when he finished speakin' He turned back toward the window Crushed out his cigarette And faded off to sleep And somewhere in the darkness The gambler he broke even And in his final words I found an ace that I could keep

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 sittin' at the table There'll be time enough for countin' When the dealin's done

You've got to know when to hold 'em (When to hold 'em) Know when to fold 'em (When to fold 'em) Know when to walk away And know when to run You never count your money When you're sittin' at the table There'll be time enough for countin' When the dealin's done

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 sittin' at the table There'll be time enough for countin' When the dealin's done

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA