The Deck of Cards
"The Deck of Cards" is a recitation song that was popularized in the fields of both country and popular music, first during the late 1940s. This song, which relates the tale of a young American soldier arrested and charged with playing cards during a church service, first became a hit in the U.S. in 1948 by country musician T. Texas Tyler.
Though Tyler wrote the spoken-word piece, the earliest known reference is to be found in an account/common-place book belonging to Mary Bacon, a British farmer's wife, dated 20 April 1762. The story of the soldier can be found in full in Mary Bacon's World. A farmer's wife in eighteenth-century Hampshire, published by Threshold Press (2010). The folk story was later recorded in a 19th-century British publication entitled "The Soldier's Almanack, Bible And Prayer Book"
The song is set during the World War II, where a group of U.S. Army soldiers, on a long hike during a campaign during The North African campaign, arrive and camp near the town of Cassino. While scripture is being read in church, one man who has only a deck of playing cards pulls them out and spreads them in front of him. He is immediately spotted by a sergeant, who believes the soldier is playing cards in church and orders him to put them away. The soldier is then arrested and taken before the provost marshal to be judged. The provost marshal demands an explanation and the soldier says that he had been on a long march, without a bible or a prayer book. He then explains the significance of each card:
- Ace: one God.
- Deuce: the Old Testament and New Testament in the Bible.
- Trey (three): the Holy Trinity.
- Four: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John.
- Five: the five wise virgins in the parable, Matthew 25:1-13.
- Six: the number of days taken by God to create the earth according to the Genesis creation narrative.
- Seven: the day on which God rested, now known as the Sabbath.
- Eight: The people God saved during the Great Flood: Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives.
- Nine: out of the ten lepers cleansed by Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke (see Luke 17:11-19), who didn't even bother to thank Him.
- Ten: the Ten Commandments handed down by Moses.
- King: Jesus Christ; King of Kings, Lord of Lords.
- Queen: Mary, the mother of Jesus.
- Jack or knave: Satan or the Devil.
- 365 spots: the number of days in a year.
- 52 cards: the number of weeks in a year.
- Thirteen tricks: the number of weeks in a season, or quarter of a year.
- Four suits: the number of seasons in a year [in some versions: the number of weeks in a month]
- Twelve face, or "Picture" cards: the number of months in a year.
He then ends his story by saying that "my pack of cards serves me as a Bible, an almanac, and a prayer book." The narrator then closes the story by stating that "this story is true," by claiming he was the soldier in question or that he knew/knows him.
The story as told contains a number of numerical flaws and slight inconsistencies:
- There aren't 365 spots on a deck of cards. On a standard deck, there are 220 (4×(1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10)) since the face cards do not contain spots. To come up with 365, one would have to assume that the face cards have 11, 12 and 13 spots respectively, plus assume exactly one joker with one spot. (This itself creates an inconsistency, as the deck in the story is explicitly mentioned as having 52 cards.) No construction of a card deck with four identical suits could contain an odd number of spots. A version of the legend dating to 1865 cites the unreliability of existing almanacs as a justification for this apparent error.
- Only in February are there exactly four weeks in a month (and even then not in leap years), so the deck would provide a rather unreliable almanac. Similarly, there are not exactly 52 weeks in a year or exactly 13 weeks in a quarter. Nevertheless, rounded to the nearest integers (as playing cards are), these numbers are roughly accurate.
- Although the seven-day week is mentioned as a Godly creation in Genesis, the ideas of months and years are rooted in astronomy and do not have direct Biblical inspiration. In fact, the Hebrew calendar in use during the Old Testament has a lunar component and thus does not use regular years. The regular solar year used in Christianity was adapted from the Julian calendar, itself adapted from the Roman calendar and having no Biblical basis. However, a lunar based calendar as found in the Bible would have 28 days (technically 29 1/2) per month and 13 months in a year, equalling 364 days in a year. The 365th day would be represented by the Joker. A year and a day, is a phrase found in the tales and myths of cultures using a lunar calendar, as in Irish folklore. But calendars of either type have to make use of leap years to correct themselves.
T. Texas Tyler's rendition went to number 2 on the country charts in 1948. A version by Tex Ritter later in the year reached number 10 on the same chart.
The highest-charting version was recorded in 1959 by future game show host Wink Martindale, and was performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Martindale's rendition (titled "Deck of Cards") went to No. 7 on the Billboard charts and number 11 on the country charts in 1959, attained multi-platinum recognition and reached No. 1 on many worldwide music charts.
Red Sovine released a version in 1967 called "Viet Nam Deck of Cards" on his album, Phantom 309. Because the United States was involved in the Vietnam War at the time, Sovine's version modified the lyrics to have the soldier's story take place there instead of the original World War II setting. William York was credited for the updated lyrics on the album.
Bill Anderson released his version in Jan 1991 and it reached number 60 on the country charts. Because the United States was involved in the Gulf War at the time, Anderson's version modified the lyrics to have the soldier's story take place there instead of World War II setting. George Morgan was credited for the updated lyrics.
The song was also a UK No. 13 hit in October 1973 for the entertainer Max Bygraves.
The newly published edition of UK hit singles dating between 1940 and 1952 shows the song reaching number 2 for Phil Harris in January 1949.
In 1974 there was a version in German by Bruce Low.
- In the BBC Scotland TV series A Kick up the Eighties, Robbie Coltrane performed a version as the Orangeman Mason Boyne. Examples such as "There are two kinds of people in the world, Good people and Roman Catholics"
- Red River Dave composed a parody, "The Red Deck of Cards" about a U.S. prisoner of war, who hates cards, because the North Koreans tried to teach him Communism by using a deck of cards.
- The Welsh comedian and singer Max Boyce recorded a Wales national rugby union team-themed version. It features on his hit live album We All Had Doctors' Papers (1975).
- In a Spitting Image sketch, Leon Brittan (voiced by Harry Enfield) performs a satirical version when Margaret Thatcher catches him and the rest of the cabinet playing poker in a cabinet meeting.
- Bill Oddie performed a parody version written by Tim Brooke-Taylor and Chris Stuart-Clark about a cricket bag in I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. This same version was also performed by David Frost and released as a single by Parlophone records in 1966 with Chris Stuart-Clarke's name being misspelled as Stewart-Clarke. A Parlophone promotional single released April 29, 1966, exists which has a John Cleese sketch titled "Zoo Keeper" as the A side  but versions are also found with "Deck of Cards" as the A side.
- The Soft Boys with Robyn Hitchcock also recorded a parody version, originally an outtake from "Live At The Portland Arms (Cambridge)". It was released as a bonus flexi-disc with Bucketfull of Brains magazine #23. While the backing is done straight, Hitchcock's recitation veers off from the original as is characteristic of his off-kilter and absurd sense of humour. For example, "...when I see the treys, I think of tea time; when I see the four, I think of the Fab Four... John, Paul, George, and Ringo; ...when I see the six I think of Unit 4 + 2" etc. before concluding with "... I know because I was that bicycle clip."
- British folk singer Mike Harding sang a segment of the song on his 1975 album Mrs 'Ardings Kid with the lyric "...and one card spread out his privates..."
- Les Barker, British poet and founder of The Mrs Ackroyd Band, performed a parody (as The Franco-Prussian war of the Spanish succession) on his 1994 album Gnus and Roses, with the memorably absurd line, "...when I see the king, I think: What's Elvis doing working in Tesco?"
- Magicians Penn & Teller have a card trick in their act called The physicist's Deck of Cards with Penn Jillette playing the guitar and Teller performing magic tricks next to him.
- Eric Idle recorded a parody in which all of the things the soldier is prompted to think of are nonsense. When he looks at the deuce he thinks of how many suits he'd own if he owned two more than he owns now. When he looks at the trey, he thinks of how many legs a bridge table would have if one of them was missing.
- The Soldier's Almanack, Bible And Prayer Book, from "The History Of Playing Cards With Anecdotes Of Their Use In Conjuring, Fortune-Telling And Card-Sharping", S. Taylor, B.A. (ed), London, 1865
- Taking the face cards at their numerical value there are 364 spots. The joker is counted as the 365th spot.
- Hits in the Netherlands, 1965
- a.s, SUPRAPHON. "Balíček karet - Balíček karet - Miroslav Černý". Supraphonline.cz. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
- Nissilä, Pekka: "Tapio Rautavaaran kaikki levytykset 1946-1979", Tapio Rautavaara - kulkurin taival. Helsinki: Warner Music Finland, 2008. ISBN 978-952-67044-2-5
- Russell, Tony (2007). Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost. Oxford University Press US. pp. 242–243. ISBN 9780195325096.