• May 29, 2014
    http://www.dead.net/features/greatest-stories-ever-told/greatest-stories-ever-told-operator
    Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Operator"

    By David Dodd

    Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)

    "Operator"

    There was an interesting song on the beautiful release last year by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, Love Has Come For You, entitled “When You Get to Asheville.” It’s a beautiful, old-timey sounding banjo melody picked out by Martin. And then, the first line in the song has the narrator asking the man who has left her: “When you get to Asheville, send me an email.”

    It’s a surprise word in the context of what really sounds like a very old song: “email.” And it makes me think often technology has been a topic or motif in our popular songs, dating back as far as song, and as far as invention. It’s not long after that song appeared that I noticed the line in the Dawes song “Hey Lover”: “copy paste and google search and send it to myself.” And in another recent song I heard on the radio the other day, the daily working life of a modern person is neatly summarized by a phrase about getting to work, logging on, and first deleting all the spam.

    “Operator” stands in the tradition of a long line of songs about the telephone—well, perhaps not about the telephone, but hanging itself on the skeleton of that technology.

    Should we touch base with the digital natives who might be reading this to make sure they are clear on the concept of a telephone operator? Nah—if you don’t know what one is, you can look it up.

    But these phone company employees wielded great power in the early days of telephony. And Pigpen, “Operator’s” composer, sings his heart out to try to get some of that mojo working on his behalf, to try to locate a lover gone missing.She left him, riding “the Midnight Flyer” (a bus out of Portland ((Oregon? Maine?))), and headed, he thinks, down south—perhaps Baton Rouge. But he can’t think of a number to use. She’s gone off the grid. And the technology is not cooperating: it’s flooding in Texas, all the poles have gone down in Utah. And, since operators were real people with, one assumes, feelings of their own and a capacity for sympathy, maybe he can get some assistance. But no—he is told that what he seeks is “privileged information.”

    In “operator” songs, the singer is usually looking for help. In some, the singer just wants to hear a voice from back home—the Bill Morrissey song, “Oil Money,” for instance:

    Hello operator, information for New Hampshire
    No town special, anyone will do
    There’s nobody back there left for me to talk with
    I just want to hear the operator talk the way I used to

    This sentiment can be traced back to Mark Twain, who wrote in his 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “I used to wake…and say ‘Hello, Central!’ just to hear her dear voice.

    Pigpen is definitely following in a long line of blues and gospel tradition in which the operator (or Central) was invoked. Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Give Me 209 (Hello Central)” was certainly bound to have been in Pigpen’s personal internal database of songs:

    Hello Central, Please give me 209.
    Hello hello Central, will you please give me 209.
    Yes, you know I wanna talk to my baby.
    Woh Lord and she’s way down the line.

    Seem like the buses done stop runnin.
    And the trains don’t ‘llow me to ride no mor’.
    Seem like the buses done stop runnin.
    Train don’t ‘llow me to ride no mor’.
    Ticket agent said my ticket played out.
    He’ll see that I don’t ride for sure.

    Perhaps the classic operator song is Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” “Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee…”

    But there are many. Just listing the songs with the title “Operator” would take awhile—there’s a listing in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, of course. (Probably woefully incomplete….)

    Another classic, in my mind, is the conflation of the early telephone technology with gospel music, found in “Jesus On the Mainline”: “You can call him up and tell him what you want.” It seems to be a true “traditional” number, with the earliest version I can locate being a field recording collected by Alan Lomax in 1959, released on “Sounds of the South.” But it seems to date back much earlier. One piece of evidence points to a 1937 recording. Would love to hear that!

    There’s an excellent essay entitled “Telephone Central Songs From Gospel and Blues Traditions,” edited by Azizi Powell in the “Pancocojams” blog.

    And then, I can’t help it, but I always think of the classic operator on television from my childhood: Lily Tomlin as Ernestine, with her infuriating snort. Somehow I doubt Pigpen would have gotten far with her. But who knows?

    And there’s the classic Nichols and May comedy routine, “Telephone,” in which the operator won’t hear reason in the pleas from a caller whose last dime has just been swallowed by the pay phone. (It’s on YouTube.)

    What is this “private line” Pigpen sings about? Were there networks strung across the continent that weren’t in the purview of public utilities? It does seem likely. Just as, today, there are miles of black fiber hiding in the Internet, unavailable to most of us. Supposedly. (I did find a website about telephone history, which is called Private Line: privateline.com. Interesting stuff!)

    Pigpen’s song is a sturdy addition to the telephone song repertoire. It was only in the band’s performing rotation for a short time, debuting in an acoustic set at the Fillmore West on August 18, 1970. Only four performances, all from 1970, are noted in DeadBase, with the final one on November 8 at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. And, of course, it appeared on American Beauty, released that same November.

    The music, as with so many songs of that era of the Dead’s songwriting, is a perfect match for the lyrics. And Pigpen’s harmonica work seems tailor-made for the tune.

    And the closing lines of the song are ones that come home to me now and again:

    I don’t know where she’s going, I don’t care where she’s been, long as she’s been doing it right.”

    Amen, and let that be a lesson to us all.

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By David Dodd

Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)

"Operator"

There was an interesting song on the beautiful release last year by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, Love Has Come For You, entitled “When You Get to Asheville.” It’s a beautiful, old-timey sounding banjo melody picked out by Martin. And then, the first line in the song has the narrator asking the man who has left her: “When you get to Asheville, send me an email.”

It’s a surprise word in the context of what really sounds like a very old song: “email.” And it makes me think often technology has been a topic or motif in our popular songs, dating back as far as song, and as far as invention. It’s not long after that song appeared that I noticed the line in the Dawes song “Hey Lover”: “copy paste and google search and send it to myself.” And in another recent song I heard on the radio the other day, the daily working life of a modern person is neatly summarized by a phrase about getting to work, logging on, and first deleting all the spam.

“Operator” stands in the tradition of a long line of songs about the telephone—well, perhaps not about the telephone, but hanging itself on the skeleton of that technology.

Should we touch base with the digital natives who might be reading this to make sure they are clear on the concept of a telephone operator? Nah—if you don’t know what one is, you can look it up.

But these phone company employees wielded great power in the early days of telephony. And Pigpen, “Operator’s” composer, sings his heart out to try to get some of that mojo working on his behalf, to try to locate a lover gone missing.She left him, riding “the Midnight Flyer” (a bus out of Portland ((Oregon? Maine?))), and headed, he thinks, down south—perhaps Baton Rouge. But he can’t think of a number to use. She’s gone off the grid. And the technology is not cooperating: it’s flooding in Texas, all the poles have gone down in Utah. And, since operators were real people with, one assumes, feelings of their own and a capacity for sympathy, maybe he can get some assistance. But no—he is told that what he seeks is “privileged information.”

In “operator” songs, the singer is usually looking for help. In some, the singer just wants to hear a voice from back home—the Bill Morrissey song, “Oil Money,” for instance:

Hello operator, information for New Hampshire
No town special, anyone will do
There’s nobody back there left for me to talk with
I just want to hear the operator talk the way I used to

This sentiment can be traced back to Mark Twain, who wrote in his 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “I used to wake…and say ‘Hello, Central!’ just to hear her dear voice.

Pigpen is definitely following in a long line of blues and gospel tradition in which the operator (or Central) was invoked. Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Give Me 209 (Hello Central)” was certainly bound to have been in Pigpen’s personal internal database of songs:

Hello Central, Please give me 209.
Hello hello Central, will you please give me 209.
Yes, you know I wanna talk to my baby.
Woh Lord and she’s way down the line.

Seem like the buses done stop runnin.
And the trains don’t ‘llow me to ride no mor’.
Seem like the buses done stop runnin.
Train don’t ‘llow me to ride no mor’.
Ticket agent said my ticket played out.
He’ll see that I don’t ride for sure.

Perhaps the classic operator song is Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” “Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee…”

But there are many. Just listing the songs with the title “Operator” would take awhile—there’s a listing in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, of course. (Probably woefully incomplete….)

Another classic, in my mind, is the conflation of the early telephone technology with gospel music, found in “Jesus On the Mainline”: “You can call him up and tell him what you want.” It seems to be a true “traditional” number, with the earliest version I can locate being a field recording collected by Alan Lomax in 1959, released on “Sounds of the South.” But it seems to date back much earlier. One piece of evidence points to a 1937 recording. Would love to hear that!

There’s an excellent essay entitled “Telephone Central Songs From Gospel and Blues Traditions,” edited by Azizi Powell in the “Pancocojams” blog.

And then, I can’t help it, but I always think of the classic operator on television from my childhood: Lily Tomlin as Ernestine, with her infuriating snort. Somehow I doubt Pigpen would have gotten far with her. But who knows?

And there’s the classic Nichols and May comedy routine, “Telephone,” in which the operator won’t hear reason in the pleas from a caller whose last dime has just been swallowed by the pay phone. (It’s on YouTube.)

What is this “private line” Pigpen sings about? Were there networks strung across the continent that weren’t in the purview of public utilities? It does seem likely. Just as, today, there are miles of black fiber hiding in the Internet, unavailable to most of us. Supposedly. (I did find a website about telephone history, which is called Private Line: privateline.com. Interesting stuff!)

Pigpen’s song is a sturdy addition to the telephone song repertoire. It was only in the band’s performing rotation for a short time, debuting in an acoustic set at the Fillmore West on August 18, 1970. Only four performances, all from 1970, are noted in DeadBase, with the final one on November 8 at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. And, of course, it appeared on American Beauty, released that same November.

The music, as with so many songs of that era of the Dead’s songwriting, is a perfect match for the lyrics. And Pigpen’s harmonica work seems tailor-made for the tune.

And the closing lines of the song are ones that come home to me now and again:

I don’t know where she’s going, I don’t care where she’s been, long as she’s been doing it right.”

Amen, and let that be a lesson to us all.

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There was an interesting song on the beautiful release last year by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, Love Has Come For You, entitled “When You Get to Asheville.” It’s a beautiful, old-timey sounding banjo melody...
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Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Operator"

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used to do a great version of Jesus on the Mainline.
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Although Deadbase says that Operator was first played on August 18, 1970 (at Fillmore West), there's a good chance that it made its debut on the night before. The same thing with "Ripple," "Truckin" and "Brokedown Palace". By the way, 8/17/70 is my birthday show. Unfortunately, a recording doesn't exist of this show. I'd sure love to have it if it did.
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Shelley Berman was the king of telephone comedy. Bob Newhart borrowed his routine. And then a few years later Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention do a 45 second telephone track on "We're Only in it for the Money". Good old Pigpen. I was there that night November 8, 1970. And not to forget the amazing talent of the Rolling Stone magazine ( cover artists) Dr Hook and the Medicine Show. Friends of Shel Silverstein. The reason I know some of this obscure knowledge is I host a comedy hour on Public Radio here in New Mexico. "And the operator says thirty more cents for the next three minutes". And I believe it was Abbie Hoffman who mentioned spare change from old old style pay phones. As if there are any pay phones left at all.
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I think Pigpen needed a private line as opposed to a "party line" where anyone could listen in. Love this song!
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Jim Croce's "Operator" was released in '72 and follows the same Theme. I used to think Pigpen borrowed the Idea from Croce but it could have been the other way around. Two songs with the Same Name from the Early Seventies about a Guy seeking His Girl and needing help from the Operator. "Please Give Me Her Number if You Can Find It So I Can Call Just to Tell Her I'm Fine..." I also loved Dr Hook's "Sylvia's Mother" Such a Sappy Love Song of trying to reach an Old Flame on the Phone! Those were the Good Old Days...before we had 911...where you just dialed -0- and could talk to a real person and Find the Help you Need "Thank You For Your Time Oh You've Been So Much More than Kind ....and You Can Keep the Dime"
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Operator is my ringtone on my cell. I love that Ry Cooder version of Jesus on the Mainline! Great album that Chicken Skin Music. Private line-- definitely referring to a private line vs. a party line. In the early days of telephone and even into the 70s in some rural areas, neighborhoods or clusters of houses had shared or party lines. So, if your neighbor was on the phone you could not make calls and you could listen in on his/her calls. On-track story re: operators. I work at a museum in a town with a tough to pronounce name. A successful company of the late 1800s with national reach invented a company mascot around 1900 whose name provided the phonetic spelling of the town's name, so people could pronounce it to the operator. This is a favorite song of mine, wish it would have stayed in the rotation throughout Pigpen's time in the band. It would have been a nice one in some of those Europe 72 first sets.
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My favorite is Arville (Orville?) Reed's humorous "Telephone Girl" (1927) in which the protagonist has a mad crush on the new operator who has moved to town. He calls just to hear her dulcet tones and daydreams of their wedding day. The Red Clay Ramblers recorded an even more humorous cover 50 years later. Arville's dad, Blind Alfred Reed, wrote many humorous songs in the old-time/Uncle Dave Macon style. In fact, Uncle Dave recorded more than one new technology derived song (at least two about automobiles). The story is that he was trying to get Ford to give him a car in exchange for all the free advertisement. Another favorite is "The Royal Telephone" recorded in 1939 by both the Selah Jubilee Singers & the Blue Sky Boys. It has the same theme as "Jesus on the Mainline", so maybe that mysterious 1937 recording inspired copy cats.
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i recall the first time i heard it on AB. it's not a DEEP song; just a lot of fun. working in a house of blue lights ridin' a getaway bus out of portland talkin' to the night as always, I hear the psychedelia imagine tripping in a house of blue lights...far out, man. the (getaway) bus out of portland (with cowboy neal at the wheel) talkin' to the night (most of us have been there) ;)
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I'm writing all this down to come up with a new comedy hour. Have already done two different shows based on telephones. Also check out Bob Dylan and the Band "Long Distance Operator" . Robbie Robertson tears it up on lead guitar.Also check out "Have A Nice Day Comedy Hour" on Gallup Public Radio. Nothin but cheap and shameless advertising on my part.OK back to work , Social Security only one year, ten months and one day away, but who's counting.
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I was pleasantly surprised when Jorma Kaukonen did a nice version of this on his "River of time" album a few years ago. Of all the Dead songs that have been covered by others, this always seemed an unlikely choice but Jorma pulled it off in style.
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This has never been my favorite Dead song, but it's nice to hear about it in the context of other songs in the same style. One of my faves: Have you read any good telephone books lately? If you ain't then let me recommend one I've already read that Tulsa telephone book through thirteen times If you don't know any last names it ain't much fun Well, I was in Tulsa and didn't have anything going And she was in Tulsa and didn't have anything on She said, my name is Shirley and I said, my name is Dave I woke up the next morning and she was gone Readin' that Tulsa telephone book will drive a man insane Especially if that girl, you're looking for has no last name I got to find her and tell her I don't want our love to end So I'm readin' that Tulsa telephone book again All of the Tulsa operators know my voice now They must know how long I've been alone If you see a girl named Shirley with some ribbons in her hair Tell her that she's wanted on the phone Readin' that Tulsa telephone book will drive a man insane Especially if that girl, you're looking for has no last name I got to find her and tell her I don't want our love to end So I'm readin' that Tulsa telephone book again I keep on readin' that Tulsa telephone book again I'm readin' that Tulsa telephone book again Songwriters HALL, TOM T.
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turns up in quite a few songs by a number of artists, going way back. Its origins seem to be a bit muddled, but in some contexts it seems to be interchangeable with the house of red lights.
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I remember my sister teaching me to sing this song, Casey Jones, Glendale Train and Sweet Baby James when I was 3 or 4. My mother loved when I did my rendition of Casey Jones while being pushed in the cart in the Supermarket. In my best baritone "Operator said that's privileged information and that ain't no business of mine"
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I always liked the end of Promised Land that, while it never uses the word, is clearly a discussion with an operator: "Los Angeles, give me Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater 410009. Tell the folks back home it's the Promised Land a'callin' and the Poor Boy's on the line." It always struck me as a triumphant call back home to let mom and pop know that you made it, godammit! And by that point the song had (usually) built up to a frenzied tempo and Jerry and Bob would practically yell the entire last lyrics, giving it an even more triumphant feel.
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Privileged information seems to suggest that his Rider has an unlisted number, one not published in the phone book. On AB, I always heard Pigpen sing "working in a house of delights." It is a good song to sing along to.
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Reading this in NY while up late on East Coast listening to "The Grateful Dead Hour" on WFUV. Normally read David Dodd's reviews while listening, and this review stated to that Operator was last sung by Pigpen at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY on November 8th, 1970. Stranger is the fact that Phil & Friends were at the same venue the last two nights May 29th and 30th, 2014. WALSTIB
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This song, along with Till the Morning Comes, are my favorite songs off of amerikan beauty. Back in those days, we had a party line and it was always a roll of the dice as to weather you were able to make a call or listen in on a call. Sometimes I would spend hours on the phone with my girlfriend, mom screaming the whole time to "get off the phone, there are others who may need it". Sometimes the others would get angry and yell, "get off the @#$%^ line" or they would pick up and hang up over and over again. Ever once in a while you might listen into your neighbors conversation, mostly boring and irrelevant stuff that one could really care less about. In my neighborhood, we had a really mean old guy who would pick up the phone and if you were on it when he wanted to use it, he would yell profanities and slam the phone down. Of course, we could have had a private line, but that would have cost a fortune. That line "privileged information" was the conditioned response you got from all operators back then who could not or would not give you the number. Classic stuff from an era long gone.
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I love this little song. It never falls out of my repertoire and is a great coffee house song. Really fun to play on the guitar.
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She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call; cause my uncle took a message and he wrote it on the wall. One ringey-dingey, two ringey-dingies... Speaking of Port Chester, Phil and Friends did this there on April 5 (between Cosmic Charlie and Bertha). As P&F often do, they brought out something else in the song, making it into a rollicking bit of rocking fun ... like a Chuck Berry song!
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yep back in those dark ages we had a party line-you never knew if one of your neighbors was listening in and yeah-you had to keep it short in case someone else needed the line-they could tell you to get off too if sufficiently riled-of course then they would blow their cover. not like today where calls are "private". Ha Ha. That big digital operator of today won't say it ain't no busines of...
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Where did you grow up that you have no memory of private/public lines? I'm older than you (66 at the moment) and grew up in the suburbs of Southern California. We had a party line at various houses through the '50s--and then when I went to grad school in the fall of '69, we had party lines in the grad school housing that had been hastily constructed amid the cow pastures. This lasted for about the first year, as I recall. In today's world, I don't know that the party line still exists, because the technology involved is well along the spectrum of things that make my brain explode, though for a brief shining moment in about 1996 I actually understood the IP stack...
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Who plays the main acoustic guitar lick on the studio version of this song? I guess it's Garcia, but could it be Pigpen himself? Inspired by this blog, I learned it last night. It's so catchy. I cannot imagine coming up with a little gem like that. It is so integral to the song that I wonder who thought of it. Did they get songwriting credit? It's a fun one to sing too, especially because of the now-archaic references to telephone hassles.
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Mary--I may not remember party lines and private lines, but I do remember when we used a word that started with the letters corresponding to the numbers on the phone's dial as the mnemonic for our prefix: HIlltop-7-4738 was our number when I grew up. Always loved that. I thought party lines were just on TV, and I never had a concept of a private line! Oh well, I learn something each time I write one of these blog posts. Thanks for all the comments, everyone!
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the one we had till I was 8: Oxford 60806.
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One more thing. Wouldn't it make more sense for the line to be "It's flooding out in Texas, poles are down in Utah" rather than "It's flooding down in Texas, poles are out in Utah"? This always bugs me. I'm singing the former.
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ddodd: I had Hilltop 5 when I was very young! Then moved to Interocean (IN8 or 468) As late as the early 80s I lived in the boonies in northern Colorado and had a party line. I did not pay for a number so I could not receive calls but could make them - they would have had to cut off the whole valley (5 houses) to cut me off. In some ways that was the best setup I ever had.
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  • bruno14
    4 years 5 months ago
    old telephones
    ddodd: I had Hilltop 5 when I was very young! Then moved to Interocean (IN8 or 468) As late as the early 80s I lived in the boonies in northern Colorado and had a party line. I did not pay for a number so I could not receive calls but could make them - they would have had to cut off the whole valley (5 houses) to cut me off. In some ways that was the best setup I ever had.
  • Default Avatar
    stoltzfus
    4 years 5 months ago
    Poles aren't out in Texas
    They're over in Poland.
  • One Man
    4 years 5 months ago
    Flooding and Poles
    One more thing. Wouldn't it make more sense for the line to be "It's flooding out in Texas, poles are down in Utah" rather than "It's flooding down in Texas, poles are out in Utah"? This always bugs me. I'm singing the former.
  • marye
    4 years 5 months ago
    I still remember
    the one we had till I was 8: Oxford 60806.
  • ddodd
    4 years 5 months ago
    Party and Private Lines
    Mary--I may not remember party lines and private lines, but I do remember when we used a word that started with the letters corresponding to the numbers on the phone's dial as the mnemonic for our prefix: HIlltop-7-4738 was our number when I grew up. Always loved that. I thought party lines were just on TV, and I never had a concept of a private line! Oh well, I learn something each time I write one of these blog posts. Thanks for all the comments, everyone!