(Pictured: country singer Henson Cargill.)
The genesis of this post is the weirdest one yet.
Most mornings I wake up with a random song running through my head. I suspect it’s the result of a life spent with music always in my ear—when I’m asleep, my brain plays everything I’ve ever heard on shuffle and I wake up hearing the last one. The other morning it was a country song called “Skip a Rope” by Henson Cargill. But I got sidetracked with other stuff later that morning and eventually, the song disappeared.
Later that afternoon I got a Twitter message from our Houston radio pal Jeffrey Thames with a picture of a soundsheet he’d found in his station’s archives. In the course of a couple of messages, he mentioned that for stability’s sake, the soundsheet had been stuck to a vinyl 45—a copy of “Skip a Rope.”
Well hell, at that level of synchronicity, I have to write about it now.
If all that isn’t synchronous enough, it turns out that “Skip a Rope” is exactly 50 years old, first charting on radio stations across the country in November 1967 and hitting both the Hot 100 and the Billboard country chart during the week of December 23. After that, it took only a month for it to climb to #1 on the country chart, where it spent five weeks beginning February 3, 1968—the week of Cargill’s 27th birthday, as it turned out. “Skip a Rope” cracked the Billboard Top 40 on January 20 and peaked at #25 on February 10, holding for two weeks. (The second week, it was tucked in just behind “Different Drum” by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys.)
And why not? There’s never been anything else that sounds quite like it. Swampy guitar and tinkly bits of piano with the rhythm of a jump-rope rhyme create an ominous mood as Cargill sings about children who hear their parents fighting, and who learn to cheat and hate from those same parents. Were it not for the warmth that occasionally creeps into Cargill’s voice, it would be almost too dark to bear.
Earlier in the 1960s, Cargill had moved from his native Oklahoma to Nashville and joined a group called the Kimberlys (who made an album with Waylon Jennings after Cargill left them). He hosted a local country music TV show in Cincinnati for a time, and was eventually signed to Fred Foster’s Monument label. After “Skip a Rope” hit, he was a very big deal for a fairly short while, making TV appearances with Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson in 1968. “Skip a Rope” was nominated for Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the 1968 Grammys, but lost out to Johnny Cash’s live “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Cargill’s followup hit, the terrific “Row Row Row,” made #11 on the country chart, and he returned to the Top 10 in 1969 with the somewhat odd “None of My Business.” It sounds a bit like “Skip a Rope,” and mentions various social ills including homelessness, Vietnam, troubled youth, and even Kitty Genovese, sort of (“I heard about a girl / Can’t remember her name”), but suggests that there’s nothing the singer can do about any of it except “take another pill.” After a few more singles in 1969 and 1970, Cargill dropped off the charts for a while. In 1973, he was one of the first artists signed to Atlantic Records’ new country division, and he scored a couple of minor hits on the label. His last singles chart appearance was in 1980. In later years, he returned to his native Oklahoma City and ran a club called Henson’s. He died in 2007 at the age of 66.
When the time comes to pick the country-est names in country, there are a lot of candidates, but Henson Cargill is right up there. I think that name is in part why “Skip a Rope” has stuck with me for all these years, beyond the record itself. In my head, I hear it in the mellifluous voice of some long-forgotten DJ on some long-forgotten station a half-century in the past: “Henson Cargill and ‘Skip a Rope.'”