The telephone through popular Music


Video killed the radio stars” sang the Buggles. When popular music and media meet, radio and television are the most recuring themes tackled. Frank Zappa, for example, denounced television and radio’s control of the American spirit with two angry songs “Trouble Everyday”1 &I’m the slime”2. The telephone, however, has a completely different function in popular music. It is never the central theme, but it is a device used to deal with the topic of the song. This paper will explore three songs that each display a different function of the telephone. These analyses will draw connections with different themes related to the use of the telephone, since its invention.

The introduction of love

Love certainly appears as the most common theme to be found in popular songs in general, and this is true of songs dealing with the use of the telephone. This telecommunications device usually acts as a kind of intermediary between two lovers who are too far apart to have a direct exchange. The introduction of love in popular music goes back to 1880 with the song « Love by Telephone, » written by C.R. Hodge, a now-forgotten composer. More precisely, in the song the telephone is used as a device allowing a man to court the woman he fell in love with, who happens to be the daughter of his boss. Consequently, the usual face-to-face seduction phase is replaced by romantic conversations on the telephone.

“Are you alone?” I stammered out,

My heart made such a noise

That I scarce could hear her answer.

It came, “Yes quite alone”

“And so am I,” I answered

Then I kissed the telephone

The function of the telephone in Hodge’s song is similar to that of a mechanical acoustic device that prefigured the invention of Alexander Graham Bell’s electrical telephone: the tin can telephone, better known as the “lovers’ telephone”. It was made of two diaphragms connected by a taut string. The sound waves were carried by mechanical vibrations along the wire. This kind of telephone may have been available as early as the mid-1660’s, invented the British polymath Robert Hooke who experimented with acoustic sound transmission through pipes.4

The tin can telephone also known as the
The tin can telephone also known as the « lovers’ telephone ». © category/week-9/

The expression “lovers’ telephone appeared during the eighteenth century, resulting from the use, at the time, of communication devices for romantic purposes.5 It was a way to have a secret conversation in public places, thus meshing perfectly with the intimate nature of a love relation. In “Love by Telephone”, the same idea can be found; indeed the man is at work (public sphere) and it is in his interests to keep his conversation private. He does not want his employer to find out that he is seducing his daughter without his permission.

A way of avoiding loneliness and boredom

Stephanie Hall wrote that, at the dawn of the twentieth century, “The telephone had fully become a technology for courtship, as explained in ՙWhenever You’re Lonesome Just Telephone Me՚6. However, this 1922 song, written by Max Kortlander and Pete Wendling and sung as a duet by Billy Murray and Aileen Stanley, can be subject to a deeper analysis. In this piece of popular music, the telephone becomes a way of overcoming the mental anguish caused by the distance separating the two lovers.

Whenever you’re by your ownsome and want company.
If blues overtake you, I’ll never forsake you.
You know your heart will be waiting for you.
Now this world may divide us from ‘Frisco to Maine.
But I’d walk a million miles to see your sweet smile again.
Your kisses and your laughter are worth running after.
If ever you get lonesome, telephone me.

This distance could not be more clearly illustrated in this case, for San Francisco (southwestern United States), referred as “’Frisco,” and the state of Maine (northeastern United States) are very distant geographical locations. Here, the telephone appears more as an essential alternative to face-to-face conversation than ever.

More generally, the song depicts the telephone as a device used to avoid loneliness and boredom. This is suggested by the different occurrences related to the lexical field of solitude, that can be noticed in the chorus lyrics: “want company”, “blues”, “lonesome”.

This was one of the main improvements entailed by the invention of the telephone, especially for women. When Bell gave the United States its first practical phone in 1876, the country was experiencing its industrial expansion. The American industrial revolution made the separation of men and women into two spheres more strict in some respects. On the one hand, the man’s public sphere (businesses) and on the other, the woman’s private sphere (homes)7. The telephone could make the isolation of women in with the homes more bearable for them. This enabled them to keep in touch with others, and therefore to reduce their loneliness. It served as a distraction that allowed them to forget that they could not leave the home very often, and consequently allowed to have a social life.8 In this case the telephone appeared as a leisure activity.

Concerning love relationship, which appears as the main theme of both songs studied, it can be deduced that the unmarried woman had more freedom through the telephone. She was able to court and to be courted by the man of her choice.

The Flaws of the Party Line Systems

In “Love by Telephone”, the telephone is seen as an instrument of privacy that allows the lover to court his beloved without his boss being aware of it. However the private aspect of this device was not so obvious in the case of party line systems. With party lines, telephone companies offered an alternative to single lines. When you were “on a party line,” you shared your line with other users. The main advantage of these lines was their discount prices. Originally, these shared service lines were usually to be found in underpopulated areas, specifically rural areas wherebig farms, and fields spread across large distances. However, rural areas did not have the monopoly of party line systems. They also could be found in small towns, as Lee Anderson tells in one of her autobiographical short stories entitled “Party Line”.9 She explains that in the 1960’s her family was living in Lehi, a sparsely populated neighborhood of Mesa, Arizona, and shared a line with their neighbors.

The reduced prices were not insignificant, as the party lines were basically flawed. Only one household could use the line at a time. If, when picking up the telephone, other people could be heard talking, it meant that another subscriber of was on the line. In the same situation, if someone wanted to get in touch with you, the caller would keep hearing the busy signal even though you were not on the phone yourself. Therefore to ensure the good working of the system, turns had to be taken. This means that courtesy was required as is shown by this telephone company’s advertisement:

An advertisement by the company Mountain Bell in the 1950’s, in Milwaukee ©

In 1966, The Kinks released the album Face to Face opening with a song called “Party Line”, written by Dave and Ray Davies, the brothers leading the band.

I can’t speak without an interception.
This is private, please get off my line. […]

I’m on a party line/Wondering all the time/Who’s on the other end

Here is evoked the biggest flaw associated with the party line systems; the possible lack of privacy. As Anderson describes it, when you heard a “click” while you were on the line it meant that another subscriber had picked up his telephone. If he did not hang up immediately, you could assume that he was listening to your conversation. The lines “Wondering all the time/ Who’s on the other end” are anchored in the reality of the party line system. Indeed, if the line was shared by more than two users, it was impossible to find out who was intruding into your private life. This negative aspect of the system had facilitated another activity, the “spreading of gossip”.0

Nowadays the lack of privacy is more topical than ever in the telecommunications domain. This has been especially true since the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement of 2006 has been enacted.

Different uses of the telephone, along with their related social improvements or reception, could be perceived in some extracts of popular music. Using the telephone as a way of courting, or as a device to overcome the distance separating two lovers or even as an evil tool violating privacy, does not constitute an exhaustive list of themes to be found in popular music. Like for any other medium when it was new, people worked out the social structures involved in using the phone technology. The songs dealt with show that process.



1 Trouble Everyday appears on the Mothers of Invention’s debut album Freak Out ! (1966)

2 I’m the Slime appears on Zappa’s Overnite Sensation (1973)

4 Richard Grigonis. “A Telephone in 1665?”, TMCNet Technews website. December 29, 2008.

5 Patrice Flichy. “The Birth of Long Distance Communication. Semaphore Telegraphs in Europe (1790-1840)”. In The French journal of communication, Vol 1, 84. 1993. Print.

6 Stephanie Hall. Love Songs at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. Library of Congress website. February 14, 2014.

7 Christopher Wells. « Separate Spheres”. In Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Encyclopedia of feminist literary theory. London, New York: Routledge. 519. 2009.

8 Lana F. Rakow, Women and the Telephone: The Gendering of Communications Technology. New York: Routledge. 209-210. 1988

9 Lee Anderson. Party Line. Lehi website. .

0 Ike Adams. Spreading gossip through party line. The Mountain Eagle website. April 16 2014.

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