Let's have fun with old songs about phones- do they still hold up in 2006?

Earlier today as I was thinking about Thanksgiving Day phone calls I might make later on, my thoughts turned to telephone songs. Songs about making phone calls, about not completing phone calls, calls about what was said during these calls.
Written by Russell Shaw, Contributor
Earlier today as I was thinking about Thanksgiving Day phone calls I might make later on, my thoughts turned to telephone songs. Songs about making phone calls, about not completing phone calls, calls about what was said during these calls.

Then the thought hit me: would the lyrics of these songs be relevant in today's advanced telecom world of VoIP, 3G mobile, etc?

After analyzing the lyrics of about 20 of these songs, I've concluded that while the overarching message- one of important communication- is timeless, the details about the phone process in some of these songs have been superseded by advances in technology and services.

So let's have some fun by going over some of these songs and see how they fare in the telecom world of 2006.

"Hello My Baby"- Thought to be the very first telephone song, this actually came out in 1899. One graf of the lyrics said:

“Ev’ry single morning you will hear me yell
Hey central, fix me up along the line
He connects me with my honey and I ring the bell
And this is what I say to my baby mine…”

Some interesting points: the calls have to be routed through a human at a central switchboard, and that board is literally manned by a "he." Actually the earliest telephone operators were boys between 10 to 15. And the central switchboard operator has to be addressed in a loud voice to be understood. Sometimes, teenage boys still have to be addressed that way.

"Hello Frisco, Hello New York"- This 1915 song actually was written to celebrate the first phone call between San Francisco and New York. I wonder how many such calls are completed every day.

"On the Party Line"- Also of 1915 vintage, this song was written about the trials and tribulations of rural telephone service. I don't think party lines have been around since the 1980s, but I still know of rural areas that can get dial-up but nothing else. And there are still some very isolated pockets in North America where there is no phone service at all.

"Hello Central, Give Me No Man's Land"- From 1917 this song was about a little girl trying to call her Daddy who was off fighting in World War I. While she wouldn't go through "central " today, well , at this very moment 89 years on, there are, sadly, still little girls who miss their Daddies who are off at war. 

OK, now let us consider some songs about phones that some of you actually remember.

"Wichita Lineman"- Well there are still phone linemen in Wichita, but not all phone calls in those areas can be heard through the wires within the whine (except maybe by the NSA). VoIP and cell calls would be impervious to the hard-working linemen Glen Campbell sang about.

"Love On The Telephone"- the Foreigner song finds the singer lamenting that he can't get his loved one to pick up, and all he hears is a busy signal. Then he calls the operator to help:

Hello operator
You know that I've been waitin' on this call
I said, hey, operator
If you're givin' me a bad time
I'm gonna tear this phone right off the wall

First of all, you don't talk like that to an operator. But there's something else. What if this is a VoIP call? Is there any way for an operator to interrupt? I don't think so. Hmm, another post perhaps?

"Hanging On The Telephone"- Offered by Blondie and the Nerves, this song details these emotional points:

I'm in the phone booth, it's the one across the hall
If you don't answer, I'll just ring it off the wall
I know he's there, but I just had to call
Don't leave me hanging on the telephone

In these days when almost everyone has a cell, who uses phone booths anymore? There are still a few of them around, but except for airports, where are the ones with seats (as in this song's reference "in the phone booth," not "at?" 

"Memphis"- Sure, you know this one by Chuck Berry, and so ably covered by Johnny Rivers. A Dad tries to get "long distance information" to connect him to Memphis "411" operator. Presumably connected, Chuck is trying to furnish the locale of where the person whose number he is trying to determine, lives:

Her home is on the Southside,
High upon a ridge
Just a half a mile
From the Mississippi bridge.

With the last name, it might have been possible when the song first came out (1958 or so) to get a local directory assistance operator to be able to pinpoint a number by those general directions. Yet since most directory assistance services are outsourced to remote operators in distant cities, there is no difference between "long distance information" and local directory assistance with "411" operators actually stationed in those cities. Good luck, Chuck. Better you use an online service like Switchboard, where you can coordinate phone listings with geographical addresses.

"Rocky Top"- One of my favorites. Let's all sing the verse:

Wish that I was on Ole Rocky Top,
Down in the Tennessee Hills.
Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top,
Ain’t no telephone bills.

Part of this song still holds up. The lyrics imply that phone service is unavailable up on Rocky Top. I'm sure you can get it now, and the phone company will be happy to bill ya? But DSL and VoIP? I'm sure they are not available yet. Incidentally, with the increasing acid rain and air pollution of the Smoky Mountains in the more than 30 years since this song was written, there is, sadly plenty of smoggy smoke up there.

"Operator"- by Jim Croce- He's trying to get the operator to help him dial a call to his ex, who "is now living in L.A. with a guy named Ray, a guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated." He can't dial the number for the tears in his eyes. Listen, that whole scene I just described still happens. But one line from the song: "you can keep the dime"- well, Jimmy died in 1973, when pay phones were a dime. Now we have cell. Plus I challenge you to name me one place in North America you can make a pay phone call for 10 cents.

"Here's A Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares"- The angry early 1980s country song by Travis Tritt told his cheatin' ex to stuff it- i.e. 25 cents in the pay phone slot. When that song came out, man did I identify with it. The emotions are still relevant but not the deets. Same principle- she would probably use her cell, and it has been at least a decade since there have been 25 cent pay phone stations.

"Telephone Line"- You probably remember the song by the Electric Light Orchestra. He wants her to pick up the telephone so he can have a conversation and find out where he stands with her. Although that's never happened to me personally (yea, right), a portion of the lyrics go:

Ok. So no one's answering
Well can't you just let it ring a little longer longer longer oh oh ooohhhhh
I'll just sit tight through shadows of the night
Let it ring for evermore oh oh ooohhhhh yeah yeah yeah
You mean she doesn't have voice mail? Well, few people did in the mid 1970s, when this song came out. And not even everyone had an answering machine. And of those who did, they learned how fickle those devices could be. Some still are, actually. 

"Telephone Man"- The late Merilee Wilson's classic is kind of like soft porn. Especially this verse, where she describes the phone installer's efforts to install extensions throughout her home:

I went to my apartment on a Monday at one
A-singin’ do lolly, lolly shicky bum, shicky bum
Started movin’ in it on a Tuesday at two
A-singin’ do lolly, lolly shicky do, shicky do
Wednesday at three I called the phone company, singin’:
“Hey baby, put a phone in for me”
Thursday at four he came a-knockin’ at my door, singin’:

“Hey, baby, I’m your telephone man
You just show me where you want it and I’ll put it where I can
I can put it in the bedroom, I can put it in the hall
I can put it in the bathroom, I can hang it on the wall
You can have it with a buzz, you can have it with a ring
And if you really want it you can have a ding-a-ling
Because-a hey baby, I’m your telephone man”

Oh, where do I start. Installer comes out in a day? Yea, you try it. But in these days, if an installer talked to a customer like that, he'd be arrested or at least sued for harassment. Plus, maybe what she really needs is a wireless network. I mean that's not all she really needs, but sorry, ain't gonna go there. 

Then there are an entirely different class of phone songs: the ones with emulatable phone numbers in the title or lyrics- or the ones that cite actual named phone exchanges.

Named phone exchanges went out of style 40 years ago but can be heard when oldies radio plays such hits as "BEechwood 45789" by the Marvelettes; and Chuck Berry/Elvis' classic "Promised Land." When our "poor boy" lands at LAX, he places a call thru the operator to "Tidewater 4-10-09." in Norfolk, Va.

And as to the songs with emulatable phone numbers- "634-5789" by Wilson Pickett, or "867-5309" by Tommy Tutone, all's I can say here is to quote Greg Kihn's great "Breakup Song," where he exclaimed "they don't write 'em like that any more." Too many people would try to dial those actual numbers and owners of those numbers would be pissed. Couldn't blame them.

Which begs the question: what about today's telephony? Will we ever see songs about phone calling over Vonage or Skype?  

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