Skip a Rope

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(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.'”

6 thoughts on “Skip a Rope

  1. Always pleased to fuel the gasbag, directly or otherwise. I know I first heard “Skip a Rope” when I was 11, I believe on a syndicated program whose identity has long slipped my mind. I didn’t get a firm grasp on Cargill’s awesome name at the time, either, but the song was under my skin for good by fadeout.

    If anyone’s looking for a hard digital copy, I recommend this collection, the likes of which could power this blog for months. I await the Bartlett ruminations on “(Down At) Papa Joe’s”.

    1. Yah Shure

      My mental “fantasy radio” iPod is most active whenever I’m out walking, and two weeks ago, it landed on one of the five 45s Santa brought me on December 25, 1963: “Baby, I Do Love You” by the Galens on Challenge. When that song ran its course, the brain segued into another of those five Christmas gifts: “(Down At) Papa Joe’s.”

      And as that one ended, up popped a fantasy “it’s an ‘A’ and ‘B’ side weekend!” jingle, followed by the drummed intro of Papa Joe’s flip: “Rock, Rock, Rock”, replete with some of the most intricate and complex lyrics ever set to wax:

      I’m guessing I wasn’t the only owner of that 45 who initially thought the label was called Sound 7 Stage. That original red-label RCA vinyl pressing, and the maroon-and-silver Monarch styrene job from the West Coast, are the best sources for the true mono (i.e., dry) “Papa Joe’s”. Alas, the ‘Monument Story’ CD has it, as do several other CD sources, in reverb-laden fake stereo. Even the gold-label Monument Signature Series reissue 45 from the early ’80s was mired in electronically-reprocessed mush.

      My fellow ex-St. Cloud radio buddy Jay and I coincidentally happened to discuss the Dixiebelles just a day or two later, since the subject had come up on Sirius/XM’s ‘The Diner” show days earlier. Jay ended up writing to Sirius/XM’s Lou Simon to get the lowdown on whether or not it actually was several members of the Anita Kerr Singers who performed on the “Papa Joe’s” recording session. Lou read Jay’s letter on the air and confirmed that it was, and that they purposely sang it in a “kids-on-a-school-bus” manner, in order to strip away their usual polished style.

      BTW, the third of those Christmas 45s was a local one, which had been all the rage in town for the previous two months: “Surfin’ Bird.” Can’t recall the other two offhand.

  2. Yah Shure

    I often skipped the “Rope” whenever it came on the radio at the time, but grew to appreciate the song after having to play it years later at a certain Oklahoma City radio station. We had a table at Henson’s, where winners and staffers could catch the shows. I didn’t go often, but really enjoyed seeing Rosanne Cash and Paul Revere & The Raiders there, along with the two most electrifying live performances I’ve ever seen from Roy Orbison and Johnny Rivers.

    Henson Cargill’s association with the place didn’t last more than two years, after which it became Doc Severinsen’s. The only other song of Henson’s I remember hearing was his final top-30 country hit, “Silence On The Line,” and that might have been only because we needed a second song when cutting spots for his local shows!

  3. Pingback: Annual Custom | The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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