Where would the world of Americana be without Alexander Graham Bell’s little invention? How could anyone call their Baby to let them know they’re coming home to them? How else could they pour their heart out to someone they’ve never met or are likely to meet? When it comes to letting someone know just how you feel, whether it’s good, bad or pretty indifferent, a letter just doesn’t cut it. Letters are great for returning to sender or encouraging you to take an aeroplane instead of a fast train, but you’re not going to write to the sorting office imploring them to save your love life and a letter won’t encourage you to pull over to the side of the road, on a whim, every twenty miles or so, just to hear a loved one’s voice on the other side of the country. For instant yearning declarations of emotion you need a phone – and a good telephone system. You need lines, operators, call boxes – you need telephony!
Perhaps not surprisingly, the golden age of Telephone Songs really exists only in the years prior to the advent of portable phones. While digital technology may be great for the Britney Spears of this world, we’re strictly analogue when it comes to good Americana songs.
Jim Reeves – ‘He’ll Have to Go’
Whisper it quietly but, there are a number of us at AUK who have admitted, somewhat in the nature of an alcoholic standing up at an AA meeting, that Jim Reeves may have had a part to play in our introduction to the world of Americana. Not that any of us are fans, I’d hasten to add, but he was a favourite of the generation before us and I can remember frequently sneering, as a teenager, at the warm tones of Gentleman Jim coming from my Dad’s record player. It was only later that I realised it had set me up to be receptive to pedal steel guitar and the “three chords and the truth” approach to songwriting. Here, Jimbo is using the phone to call from a bar and set up a little clandestine meeting with someone who, it would appear, is already entertaining a suitor. Perhaps not such a Gentleman after all…
“Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone/ Let’s pretend we’re together all alone/ I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low/And you can tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go”
Travis Tritt – ‘Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)’
Written and recorded by Tritt back in 1991, when you could still make a local U.S call for 25 cents, this is likely to make very little sense to anyone growing up in the digital age – why wouldn’t you just text them like Britney or that guy in One Direction? Or call them through WhatsApp and save the money? Reaching number two in the country charts this remains one of Tritt’s most successful and popular songs, which probably says something about the rest of his material! It’s interesting because it’s really on the cusp of that transition between the mobile phone replacing the landline or call box as a means of regular communication. The beginning of the end for a put-down catchphrase.
Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show – ‘Sylvia’s Mother’
Written by the incredibly prolific writer, artist and songwriter, Shel Silverstein, this is a classic Telephone song, with the frustration of the caller slowly building as the song progresses and he can only talk to the mother of the girl he’s trying to reach – and, all the time, the operator is telling him to put more money into the phone if he wants to continue the call. Dr Hook have, over the years, developed a reputation for rather kitsch and corny country-tinged songs and, since Silverstein wrote much of their output, he probably has to take some of the blame for that; but this is a really good song. Well written it is, in fact, autobiographical and based on a call Silverstein had placed to a Sylvia of his own, Sylvia Pandolfi, in an attempt to resurrect a failing love affair, only to be told by her mother that Sylvia was no longer interested in him. It clearly struck a chord with many, as it charted worldwide on its release in 1972.
Chuck Berry – ‘Memphis, Tennessee’
Now, this is more like it. While generally considered a rock ‘n’ roll artist there’s more than a little bit of Americana about Charles Edward Anderson Berry and many of his songs have been covered by artists closely associated with our genre. Of course, this song, first released in 1959, has the famous twist in the tale, as our narrator pours his heart out to the long-distance operator, then reveals that Marie is his six-year-old daughter, rather than a separated lover. Berry would go on to record a sequel to this song, ‘Little Marie’, five years later, though it would prove nowhere near as successful.
Here’s Flatt & Scruggs interpretation of this great telephone song.
Grateful Dead – ‘Operator’
I have to hold my hand up and say that I’ve never really got The Dead. They always sound like a fairly uninspiring bar band to me and even their two classic Americana albums, ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’, both from 1970, pretty much leave me cold but this number, from the latter of those two albums is, for me, one of their better tracks. Written and sung by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, this was, apparently, his one and only contribution to Grateful Dead’s studio recordings! Perhaps I’d like them more if they’d used more of his songs! It’s the fairly standard story of trying to get the operator to help him locate someone he’s lost touch with. He gets the standard “privileged information” response and is left hanging on the line. America’s Telephone Operators clearly have much to answer for when it comes to the nation’s broken-hearted!
Tom Waits – ‘Martha’
From Waits’ 1973 debut album, ‘Closing Time’, this beautiful piano-driven ballad has the distinction of being the first Tom Waits song ever covered by an established artist, with Tim Buckley including it on his ‘Sefronia’ album in the same year. It tells the story of a man trying to reconnect with an old flame some 40 years after he last saw her. It has a wonderful bitter-sweet quality as he reminisces about their old love affair and what has happened in their lives since. It sums up the value of a telephone call as a means of making that first contact after so long apart, a function now largely taken over by social media sites! This is the telephone call as a prelude to meeting in person, a chance to re-establish contact and, perhaps, to give each other a chance to re-think the past.
Ry Cooder – ‘634-5789’
Written by Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper this classic piece of telephony first appeared as a down-home soul song on Wilson Pickett’s ‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’ album in 1966. Released as a single it scored a number one hit on the U.S Hot R&B Singles chart as well as making number thirteen on the more significant pop charts. Fourteen years later Ry Cooder added a little Texas-style country swagger and made it his opening track on the ‘Borderline’ album. While not hugely successful at the time of its release, it spent 6 weeks on the charts and climbed to a reasonable thirty-fifth position, many of the songs on the album, including this one, have become some of Cooder’s most popular with audiences.
In case you ever wondered; the phone number 634-5789 is a reference to The Marvelettes’ 1962 hit ‘Beechwood 4-5789’.
New Grass Revival – ‘Calling Baton Rouge’
Written by the great Dennis Linde, a Nashville songwriter probably best known for Elvis’ ‘Burning Love’ and the Dixie Chicks’ ‘Goodbye Earl’, Linde was that rare beast among professional songwriters in that he almost never collaborated with other writers, preferring to write both the words and music for his songs. The big hit was Garth Brooks’ version, released in 1993, but it was originally recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys for their 1978 album ‘Room Service’ and I’ve always liked this 1989 version from New Grass Revival’s album, ‘Friday Night in America’. Featuring both Sam Bush and Bela Fleck this version was released as a single and gave New Grass Revival their only Billboard Country Top 40 hit, peaking at 37. Love those mullets!
Jim Croce – ‘Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels)’
Though Jim Croce didn’t formally record this song until 1972, for inclusion on his ‘You Don’t Mess Around With Jim’ album he’d been playing the song in live sets since the mid ’60s and it significantly pre-dates Pigpen McKernan’s song of the same title (and remarkably similar storyline) and is, in my opinion, a much better song. As with the McKernan song, it’s about a caller asking the operator to help him place a call to his ex-girlfriend and the ex-best friend she left him for – but in this song, the operator is far more obliging and helps to establish the correct number before our narrator has a change of heart and can’t bring himself to place the call. He’s polite and thankful for the help – and even tips his operator at the end!
“Thank you for your time, ah you’ve been so much more than kind. And you can keep the dime”…
Perhaps that’s why Jim’s operator was a bit more accommodating than the others we’ve encountered.
This is one of his best-known songs but Jim Croce was a prolific and very good songwriter, so it’s particularly sad that less than twelve months after this song was released (and the day before the lead single of his next, and final, album ‘I Got a Name’ would hit the streets) Jim Croce met his end at the age of 30, killed in a plane crash whilst on tour.
Glen Campbell – ‘Wichita Lineman’
Now, this isn’t a top ten, just a list of ten telephone themed songs in no particular order. Except for this one! In any list of songs concerning telephony there can only, ever, be one number one and this is it. The combination of Jimmy Webb’s superb storytelling, Glen Campbell’s faultless vocals and the outstanding backing of the legendary Wrecking Crew make this, the first-ever recording of the song, the bar against which all cover versions are set and, while there are many good ones from the likes of James Taylor, Ray Charles, Tony Joe White and Johnny Cash, to name just four, none comes close to the original.
Campbell had cut Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ and wanted another song along similar lines; he liked the geographical connection and wanted to continue with that as a theme. On a drive through a rural area of southern Oklahoma, Webb had noticed a line of telegraph poles in the sunset, with a lone lineman in the distance, silhouetted against the reddening sky. That became the inspiration for this classic song.
The song itself beautifully evokes the solitude of the lone worker, out in the landscape keeping the lines of communication open, all the while thinking about the one he loves. Webb considered the song unfinished when he delivered it, he saw it as a work in progress, feeling that it needed another verse and, probably, a middle eight of some sort. Campbell went ahead and cut it as it was, with producer and arranger, Al De Lory, recognising the simple beauty in the song exactly as it had been delivered. De Lory’s uncle had been a lineman down in California and it gave him an instant connection with the song.
Great songs have a timeless quality and, even as telegraph poles and lines disappear to be replaced by fibre and cell phone masts, it would be nice to think that ‘Wichita Lineman’ will stand the test of time. “I’m a 5G mast engineer for Huawei, and I troubleshoot the circuits on-line” somehow lacks the same romanticism…
Great list. If any one wants to listen to more there is Mavis Staples‘ version of Jesus On The Mainline
Mentioned on AUK only a few weeks ago but here’s another chance to hear Calexico covering Tom T Hall’s Tulsa Telephone Book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9hpuDg4MtE
You left out Arlo Guthrie’s 1979 song, “Telephone,” which almost (but not quite) predicted the rise of cell phones:
Fair point and it is a good song – but the curse and the beauty of these lists is that you have to leave songs out; usually more than you include. That way, people write in and tell you that something is missing and readers get to discover even more great songs. The gift that keeps on giving!