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!)
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.
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.
They're over in Poland.
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.
the one we had till I was 8: Oxford 60806.
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!
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.
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...
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...
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!
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.