Like my song "Fly," "Eight Days in January" (which kicks off the album Almost There) is based on a fiddle tune—as you might have guessed, "The Eighth of January." Fiddle tunes have always struck me as some of the world's happiest sounds, made for dancing and celebration. In "Fly" I followed the festive feel of the underlying fiddle tune ("Sally Goodin"), but with "Eight Days" I married the bouncy music with a ruefully sad story, and the contrast between those two moods is really what the song is about.
"Eight Days" started when I happened to discover that the Strumstick is great for playing fiddle tunes. If you're not familiar with the Strumstick, it's a little three-stringed cross between a guitar and a dulcimer, with a diatonic fingerboard that gives you only the notes in one key. I'm now the proud owner of both a G model, used on this song, and a D model. (You can read more about my instruments and gear here.)
The Strumstick is just fun as hell to play, and amazingly loud too; it also gave me my song "Humming My Way Back Home." Perhaps the best-known Strumstick player is Tracy Chapman. I first heard one in the hands of the great singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball.
Anyway, one of the tunes I started playing on my Strumstick was "The Eighth of January." Here's a nice version by Rhonda Vincent.
I thought this melody would be fun to adapt into a song, and the idea popped up of telling a story with a verse for every day from January 1 through January 8. I didn't know at the time that there were other songs based on "The Eighth of January"—notably "The Battle of New Orleans," written by Jimmy Driftwood and made into a no. 1 hit by Johnny Horton in 1959. Here is Driftwood himself singing his song.
My version tells a story as well, riffing off of some painful truths from my life and adding purely made-up stuff as well. As I've noted in The Complete Singer-Songwriter and elsewhere, the best writing often comes when you stop worrying about sticking to your autobiography and just focus on telling a good story.
Making the band arrangement for the Almost There album was a blast. The core track was recorded live in the studio, with me on Strumstick and vocal, Wendy Ramsay on accordion, Josh Dekaney on rub board and percussion kit, and John Dancks on upright bass. The absolute coolest thing was: we recorded it on January 8.
In the months before recording I'd had a few chances to perform this song with the fabulous fiddler and singer Rani Arbo, and she really put "Eight Days" over the top. So a few weeks after the studio session, I made a trip to her house in Connecticut to record her parts on my laptop. I particularly love the instrumental section, where we veer unexpectedly into a minor key.
"Eight Days" is fun to play in a stripped-down setting too. Here is a Pepper and Sassafras duo version captured by the good folks at Folk Alley.
In the lyrics, the discovery of the tune "The Eighth of January" makes the narrator feel better despite all the crap that comes every day. Music does that for me all the time, bringing unreasonable joy.
On the 1st of January, crawling out of bed
Like a half-inch staple is sticking in my head
I don’t see my dog curled up on the floor
Stumble on his belly and slam into the door
On the 2nd of January, got to get to work
Finish up a project for a freakin’ jerk
Yeah, he knows it’s my vacation, but after all
Gotta have it by tomorrow or the sky will fall
Hey now, won’t you meet me by the river
Hey now, won’t you throw me right in
Hey now, won’t you please deliver
Got a sinking feeling but I got to swim
On the 3rd of January I lock myself out
I’m banging on the window with a desperate shout
But the only one listening inside my place
He wags his tail when he sees my face
On the 4th of January my baby is trying
To explain about a fellow she met online
Such a perfect stranger, no history
Not a heap of baggage like she got with me
On the 5th of January I’ve got to ask why
Staring in the mirror I find this guy
Needs a freakin’ coffee and a freakin’ shave
Got one foot down in the freakin’ grave
On the 6th of January I hear a little tone
From a new text message arriving on my phone
On the airport taxi all my baby has to say
Are these six characters: C U L 8 R J
On the 7th of January a storm blows in
Finally shovel out the driveway, the plow comes again
Leaves an icy bank about six feet high
I throw my shovel and begin to cry
On the 8th of January I come across this song
So freakin’ cheerful can’t help but sing along
Such a perky melody and chipper little chords
I sing it and I sing it like I’m out of my gourd
Words by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers Music (ASCAP)