My song today is ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles.’ This song was written by Elsie Hansen and was first recorded by Wanda Jackson in 1956. The original lyrics, as performed by Jackson, contain a verse not usually included in later versions, which also often differed in other minor details.
Many artists have covered this song over the years with the most popular hits of the song being recorded by Linda Ronstadt: the Everly Brothers: Johnny Rivers: Janis Joplin: Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn (trio): Emmylou Harris: and the Seekers.
At the time this record was first released I was hobbling around, having been unable to walk for thirty months. I had just returned to school after a three years absence from my education.
At the age of 11 years, I found myself as an inpatient in ‘Batley General Hospital’. I was in the hospital for nine months after occurring a life-threatening accident when a wagon ran over me, damaged my spine, punctured my lungs, collapsed my chest and broke every limb and bone in my body. I didn’t have a broken heart, but every other bone of my body was broken (my legs in over six places) and I was left with the medical prognosis of never being able to walk again.
During the worst part of that life-changing experience, the likelihood that I’d never walk again threatened to destroy all that I cherished in life, along with my dreams of one day playing professional soccer for Ireland (the land of my birth) as my father had done in his early twenties. I’d also dreamed of one day becoming a professional singer as I had a very good voice and had won many talent contests between seven and eleven years of age. I reckoned that if I could play football for a national team as well as earn top money by being one of the best singers in the world, that I’d have it made!
Being told that I’d never walk again by the hospital consultant meant that I would spend the rest of my life looking out at the world from the deck of a wheelchair. I saw my football dreams, along with visions of singing stardom being shot down in flames before my eyes. There was simply no way that my dreams of being a professional footballer and singer would ever be realised, especially from the position of a seated cripple. There wasn’t a national paraplegic soccer team until 1960, and even had there been, I didn’t want to play football for my country sitting in a wheelchair. Neither could I imagine myself being pushed onto the stage to perform some concert venue at ‘Carnegie Hall’ in midtown Manhattan, New York or at the famous nightspot on ‘Las Vegas Strip’ like ‘The Sands Hotel’ in Nevada by a wheelchair minder.
Before I was 12 years old, my boyhood dreams were shot down in flames! I’d always imagined myself one day being cheered to the rafters by a stadium of 100,000 soccer fans as I came onto the football field of play in the shirt of my country. I’d also dreamed of tens of thousands of singing fans screaming for an encore as I headed the bill in a world-famous venue and left the stage after my final song. On my way off the stage, I was being congratulated by a supporting cast of singers called Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Frank Sinatra (all of whom had been observing my performance from the wings in adoration of having ‘seen a star born’. I never did see the point of dreaming, unless one dreamt big!
Six months after my 14th birthday, I was able to return to my educational studies and started at ‘Dewsbury Technical College’. I joined my class six months behind every other pupil in it and spent the better part of the next six months ‘catching up’ on my missed lessons. The upshot was that by December 1957, I’d had enough of schooling. My overinflated ego had been established between the school ages of 6-11 years when I was always placed ‘number one’ or ‘number two’ in my class at whatever subject we were being taught. But, after three years of absence from school with my inability to walk, I found myself in the mid-way ratings of being thirteenth in a class of twenty-eight.
I was also fed up with being unable to dress in decent clothes and acquit myself as any good-looking young man ought to. Being the oldest of seven children, my parents couldn’t afford to buy me new clothes and equipment for school attendance.
So on the day of the school Christmas party, I gathered together all my books and deposited them with the Headmaster (Mr. Ford) and told him that I’d had enough of school and wanted to get myself a job and start earning some money. I don’t know whether the Christmas spirit had positively affected the strict Headmaster’s usual temperament (he was not a man known for having an understanding nature), and instead of trying to dissuade me from leaving and threatening my parents with police prosecution if I did, he wished me well in my future life.
The following Monday, I started work as a Bobbin Boy at a Cleckheaton Mill for the princely wage of £2: 15 shillings a week. Although in later years I would return to complete my education as a mature student and take the examinations that I ran away from at the age of 15 years, I was always happy working at the mill in Cleckheaton and I never once regretted my spontaneous action that December.
In those times, however poor a family was, the first wage packet of every young person starting a job could be kept entirely and spent on oneself. I bought the best pair of shoes that my money could buy with my first wage. After one’s first week at work, all future wage packets would be tipped up to mum ‘unopened’ until one attained the age of twenty-one years of age. Then, one paid for one’s board and keep only until leaving home to marry and live elsewhere arrived. No young man or young woman liked tipping up an unopened wage package, but we all accepted this standard working-class practice. We did so because we’d always witnessed our working fathers do the same all our lives.
Dad may have been regarded as being the ‘head of the house’ in the 1950s, but mum was its ‘heart’ and doubled as being the ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’ in money management of the household. Dad may have been ‘the worker’ of the household but mum was ‘the wizard’. Only through her magic management was she able to make dad’s £10 weekly wage get us £16 of supplies one week to the next by knowing who to pay this week and which debtor to dodge until the next. Mum managed to juggle household debt for twenty years of my upbringing. I believe that my mother was still paying off the ‘National Household Debt’ when I was 21 years old.
On an evening, my father, (who’d worked hard as a miner for twenty years), would go to bed early to replenish his energy for an early start on the pit face the following day. Whereas dad would be in bed by 9:00 pm along with my younger siblings, being the firstborn of seven children, I would often be allowed to stay up late talking with my mother and listening to her Irish stories as she finished off her daily chores before retiring for the day.
Like all mums of the time with a large family, mum’s work was never done. She would be up every morning by 6:00 am to get my father off to work and her children off to school. Her day’s work never ended before midnight arrived, and it was not unusual for me to see her up until nearly 1:00 am, finishing off the ironing and darning holed socks.
Whenever I hear the song, ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’, I think of these days of my upbringing and the late hours mum and I spent together. God bless you, Mum from your loving son, Billy xxx
Love and peace Bill xxx