July '24 issue #186


I don't know if I ever cared for you, young Willie Nelson..
Mike's Pith & Wind
I never cared for you..
One night a few months ago, while trawling through YouTube music clips, a song by Alison Krauss comes up that I haven’t seen before. It looks fairly recent, but for a change isn’t featuring her singing with the astoundingly leonine Robert Plant.
Alison Krauss isn’t that well known in Australia and, if she’s known at all, it’s confined to the country music sphere. She was part of a very fine and well, genteel bluegrass outfit called Union Station that found favour with middle-brow country music fans in the States. I think Ross Ryan brought the band to my attention in the first place, which makes it probably in the nineties, about the time Bill and I were recording the Spill album at Ross’s GI Recorders studio.
I was immediately fascinated by her. She does play an instrument, the fiddle, but it’s her singing and her delivery that held my attention. Technically she’s a bloody near perfect singer - Union Station was known for its harmonies and her pitching is impeccable and tonally she blends in perfectly with the other (male) voices.
That emotional and tonal neutrality works in combination with other voices, but when it comes to soloing you might think it would need to be worked around a bit.
Her ensemble singing style works with Robert Plant’s voice, where Alison has by her own admission adopted the role of Plant’s perfectly in-synch harmoniser.
So, here I am, about to watch/listen to this song called I Never Cared For You, as sung by Alison Krauss for the first time.
Here’s Alison!
They say it's live and it looks like she’s in a studio with a bunch of older crack country/rock musos.
Piano lick intro. The spotlight behind Alison softens her image, but she looks as blonde and as attractive as ever. She sings the first line in tight three-part harmony over the piano.
‘The sun is filled with ice..’
What is this? Psychedelia?
The band comes in with a key change equipped with a slick latin-ish beat.
The band is definitely HOT. But hold on. There are tears in my eyes. What the hell was that?
I play it again. Then again.
Alison’s restrained precision works a treat complementing the band’s playing and vice versa. The song’s lyrics are sensitive, ironic and intelligent and the key changes don’t suggest a typical country tune either. The sophistication of the band's playing just adds to the mystery.
It’s such a quality song. I wonder who wrote it?
I throw the title to the YouTube search engine.
There is another version by the looks of it. It’s a version by Willie Nelson! The clip looks ancient. My God - it’s the same song! Exactly the same song. I think it’s even in the same key. He’s playing a jumbo sun-burst acoustic guitar (he plays Duane Eddy style solo!) in front of a trope painting of a desert (with cactus) and he’s beardless and he’s wearing a polo-neck skivvy! (One YouTuber reasonably suggests he was channelling Johnny Cash). Alison Krauss’s version has the identical arrangement and the song is a WILLIE NELSON SONG!
It turns out that it was the first song Willie released (his only song on the Monument label) back in 1964. It made no impression nationally, but was big in Texas, in Houston specifically Wikipedia tells me..
I’ve never been a Willie Nelson fan, but I have to admire the fact he recorded a song with such ambition as his first single and as a consequence I’ve checked out some more of Willie's early songs.
We’ve become used to Willie’s hippie accoutrements, from his platted silver hair down to the hole scratched in his faithful old acoustic guitar (you didn’t know where that was going, did you?) so it might come as a shock to see Willie, the earnest young singer/songwriter, looking more like a real estate agent than a hippie, singing a medley of his hits on the Grand Ole Opry back in 1965. There were only three big hits by then, but they just kept coming and to a degree they all stretch the conventional perception of country music.

Which takes me back to I Never Cared For You. At just two minutes and twenty-nine seconds it’s a very short song, even for a single. (The Alison Krauss version is only marginally longer at 2:58). If you were thinking of introducing yourself as a new country songwriter, this song is a very concise sampler, telling the listener so much about the writer/performer without a wasted word or note.
Willie Nelson today is regarded as old guard, possibly old, old guard, and an exponent of a style of song writing that has been largely discarded. If, like me, you’ve never taken the time to appreciate his contribution to country and popular music in general, just check out the links (below) for a taste of Willie. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself).

I Never Cared For You - Alison Krauss
I Never Cared ForYou - Willie Nelson
Hit Medley on the Grand Ole Opry (1965) - Willie Nelson

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William takes aim, probably at another of Ethel's hapless suitors

Dick's Toolbox
Swallows and Amazons
Children’s literature in the 1950s and now
When there was no such thing as TV, you read as soon as you could stumble through the connected alphabet. Despite any evidence, I am convinced I could read before I went to school, but I don’t recall there being many children’s books in the house - though, of course, children’s books were not the large colourful industry that they are today.  Maybe there was ‘Pooh Bear’ and ‘Now We are Six’ - but was there anything else? I know that as soon as I could, I ploughed through all my parent’s books without any knowledge as to their suitability. Perhaps the illustrated Boccaccio’s ‘The Decameron’ at ten is too early, however.
Given that we were probably not that well off in my mother’s first time between husbands, the Christchurch library, standing four square on the banks of the Christchurch’s River Avon, was where we often went to supplement the limited domestic reading list. I remember going to the library and walking up its stone steps to the high, hushed and wood-panelled rooms, where some of the books in the children’s section actually smelt as if they were made from wood that had rotted for generations beneath some Heathcote bog and then bonded with reconstituted dead frogs. Were they those weird garish American Little Golden books?
I know I borrowed, but what did I read? In later years there was the Richmal Crompton ‘William’ series - much of the raucous humour I missed at the time. A good children’s book has to appeal to adults as well and William would appeal to all parents of young boys who could see their own child’s behaviour writ large. No matter how bad your child was, William could be worse. But it must have been a calculated risk: if my boy reads this and gets even more perverse ideas, where does this leave me in my pursuit of a calm and happy life?
This is an introduction to chapter three of the first book ‘Just - William’ courtesy of The Project Gutenberg.

William was feeling embittered with life in general. He was passing through one of his not infrequent periods of unpopularity. The climax had come with the gift of sixpence bestowed on him by a timid aunt, who hoped thus to purchase his goodwill. With the sixpence he had bought a balloon adorned with the legs and head of a duck fashioned in cardboard. This could be blown up to its fullest extent and then left to subside. It took several minutes to subside, and during those minutes it emitted a long-drawn-out and high-pitched groan. The advantage of this was obvious. William could blow it up to its fullest extent in private and leave it to subside in public concealed beneath his coat. While this was going on William looked round as though in bewildered astonishment. He inflated it before he went to breakfast. He then held it firmly and secretly so as to keep it inflated till he was sitting at the table. Then he let it subside. His mother knocked over a cup of coffee, and his father cut himself with the bread knife. Ethel, his elder sister, indulged in a mild form of nervous breakdown. William sat with a face of startled innocence. But nothing enraged his family so much as William’s expression of innocence.

A child I could readily identify with... and like a lot. But if children’s books are meant to be morally improving, William should have been judged a failure. William was a self-centred narcissistic sociopath. A Trumpian prototype.
And there was the W E Johns ‘Biggles’ series, with the dashing racist imperialistic British Pilot, James Bigglesworth, his faithful batman Ginger and his companion and cousin Algy. What exciting titles in the ninety-nine long list of titles! ‘Biggles flies East’. ‘Biggles flies West’. ‘Biggles flies North’. ‘Biggles flies South’. ‘Biggles flies slightly West of South’. I definitely read ‘Biggles in the South Seas’ written in 1940. But the ones on constipation ‘Biggles works it out’ and the sex-ed edition ‘Biggles Makes Ends Meet’ and ‘Biggles takes a Hand’ must have eluded my voracious reading.
The thing that interests me most is that the younger heroes and heroines of the books we read were allowed astounding levels of independence by their parents. My favourite example is ‘Swallows and Amazons’, where the four children are given free rein to sail a dinghy around a fictionalised Windermere in the Lakes District. A large and deep lake with other boats on it, in the book and in real life. John and Nancy are 12, Susan and Peggy are 11, Titty is 9 and Roger is 7. Yes, one of the girls was called Titty. The young lady in question was based on Mavis Altounyan, who had the nickname ‘Titty’ which came from the fairytale Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse, an English folktale of interesting gruesomeness where death and destruction reign supreme. Titty Mouse dies of scalding in the ninth line and Tatty Mouse is crushed by the collapse of their house in the last.
There have been two films made of the book and only in the first, and perhaps best version, is Titty actually called Titty. In the 2016 version she changes mice to become Tatty.
Now I have to be honest here. When I first read 'Swallows and Amazons' at thirteen, having heard that it was a superb book for the young reader, I was very disappointed. Too many capable girls perhaps? Too nice? But, rereading it as an adult I was enchanted - and somewhere we have the complete series of books, of which ‘We didn’t mean to go to Sea’ is a ripper. There are audiobooks too, though the best version of 'Swallows and Amazons' read by Bernard Cribbins, can now only be found on YouTube.
“Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown’ are the words on a telegram to the children’s mother, (in the first 1974 film played by Virginia McKenna), from their father who is in Malta en route to Hong Kong in answer to the children’s request for permission to take to the waters of the lake. They do and, with scarcely an adult in sight to fuss and molly-coddle over them, they camp on islands in the middle of the lake under tents they have pitched themselves, gut fish, sail in the middle of the night against other child pirates, foil thieves and blackguards from the town, and generally demonstrate survival skills of a high order. Arthur Ransome, the magnificently moustached author and illustrator of the book, had holidayed as a child in the district, though his poor eyesight and lack of athletic skill might have made emulating the children he wrote about somewhat aspirational. He settled in the Lakes District in the 1920s. His may have been an agent for MI6 in WWI and his second marriage was to Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, who had worked as Trotsky's personal secretary.
He was a keen sailor whose interest in sailing and his need to provide an accurate description, made him to undertake a voyage across the North Sea to Flushing in the Netherlands in his own boat ‘Nancy Blackett’, which became the fictional Goblin in ‘We didn’t mean to go to Sea’.
The children are not duffers, and they don’t drown. Lesson learnt.

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