When it comes to technology, country folk tend to be late adapters — and often comic ones. Humor, after all, relieves the stress and sense of apartness new inventions may generate. Here are some lyrical cases in point:
“John Henry Blues,” Fiddlin’ John Carson (1924)
Surely the John Henry legend inspired one of the first songs that contrasted the old ways of labor with the new. In it a “steel-driving man” outpaces a steam-powered drill but dies in the process. Whether there ever was a John Henry of this description remains a question of lively debate. Railroad tunnels constructed near Talcott, West Virginia, in 1872 and Leeds, Alabama, in 1887 are both cited as sources of the legend.
“Hello Central, Give Me Heaven,” Byron G. Harlan (1901)
It seemed a miracle that you could pick up a machine attached to a wire, ask a central operator to connect you to a number and then talk to someone hundreds of miles away. Maybe all the way to Heaven. “Papa, I’m so sad and lonely sobbed a tearful little child/Since dear Mama’s gone to Heaven, Papa dear, you’ve not smiled/I will speak to her and tell her that we want her to come home/Just you listen and I’ll call her through the telephone.”
“The Little Old Ford Rambled Right Along,” Billy Murray (1915)
Henry Ford produced his first Model T in 1908, thereby presenting Americans with a car that most of them could realistically aspire to own. By the time this song came along, the Model T had built a reputation for toughness and reliability — unlike the array of fancier and pricier automobiles. Class and gas collide immediately: “Now, Henry Jones and his pretty little queen/Took a ride one day in his big limousine/The car kicked up and the engine wouldn’t crank/There wasn’t any gas in the gasoline tank/Just about that time along came Nord/He rambled right along in his little old Ford/He stole that queen as his engine sang a song/And the little old Ford rambled right along.” How easy was it to keep the Ford running? “When it blows out a tire/Just wrap it up with wire/And the little Ford’ll ramble right along.”
“Turn Your Radio On,” Blue Sky Boys (1940)
If the telephone seemed magical with its network of wires you could talk through, just imagine how mind-blowing a wireless radio was. All you had to do was turn a knob, and people from all over the world would talk and sing for your listening pleasure. It seemed a lot like hearing the voice of God, thought Albert Brumley when he published this song in 1938. “Turn your radio on and listen to the music in the air/Turn your radio on, Heaven’s glory share/Turn the lights down low and listen to the Master’s radio/Get in touch with God, turn your radio on.”
“Only a Phonograph Record,” Charlie Monroe (1947)
Monroe released this song a year before Columbia Records revolutionized the music industry by introducing its long-play (LP) format. Instead of writing his ex a love letter, which would have been standard for the time, Monroe makes his plea through a sound recording: “If you’ll stop for a while, dear and listen/To a song that I wrote from my heart/And recorded for you on this record/Then you’ll know how you’re breaking my heart.” The kind of record he alludes to was the one that revolved on the turntable at 78 times a minute and could carry no more than five minutes of music on each side. Columbia’s long-play configuration moseyed along at a casual 33 1/3 turns a minute and held more than 20 minutes a side.
“Television,” Red Foley (1947)
According to the Early Television Museum, only 44,000 American homes had TV sets at the end of 1946. The following year, Red Foley complained about the strange new invention and its diabolic invasion of privacy. His boss sees him on television at a ball game when he was supposed to be home sick, and his girlfriend spots him at a wrestling match impulsively hugging another woman. But there was yet another hazard: “The phonograph and radio sure used to be all right/My girl and I we’d cuddle up, we’d listen every night/Since television came along ain’t like it used to be/She saw Bing Crosby singing, now she won’t look at me.” The refrain goes: “Television is the devil’s doin’/Brought me ruin, grief and woe/Television is the devil’s doin’/Television it’s got to go.”
“Electricity,” Jimmy Murphy (1951)
Even as late as the early ’50s, many homes in rural America were without electricity. But everyone knew electricity was a mighty and invisible power. To Jimmy Murphy, who also wrote this song, the parallel was obvious: “Now you can’t see electricity moving on the line/How in the world can you doubt it when you can hear it whine/When you get salvation all these things you can feel/You don’t have to have nobody to tell you that it’s real.”
“A Plastic Heart,” Roy Acuff (1951)
Whether for simple toys, fancy houses or mighty airplanes, the usual building elements up through World War II were wood, stone, metal and rubber. But after the war, objects made of strong yet flexible plastic became more and more common. Taking note of this phenomenon, Roy Acuff suggested yet another application for the exotic material: “It seems you’re getting careless lately, and I’m on the spot/You’re carrying my heart around, and I’m scared you’ll let it drop/It’s not that I don’t trust you dear, but just for my own sake/I wish I had a plastic heart so it wouldn’t break.”
“Great Atomic Power,” the Louvin Brothers (1952)
Built secretly and unleashed on Japan in 1945, atomic bombs horrified the world with their catastrophic potential. And the shock was still there and growing — because the Russians now had the bomb — when the Louvins sang these lyrics: “Do you fear this man’s invention that they call atomic power/Are we all in great confusion, do we know the time or hour/When a terrible explosion may rain down upon our land/Leaving horrible destruction, blotting out the works of man.” Their solution: “There is one way to escape it be prepared to meet the Lord/Give your heart and soul to Jesus, He will be your shield and sword.”
“Convoy,” C. W. McCall (1975)
CB (citizens band) radios became particularly useful to truck drivers after the oil shortage of 1973. In 1974, the national speed limit was set at 55 miles an hour as a way of making drivers conserve fuel. But the limit also impaired the truckers’ ability to deliver their cargo in a timely fashion. By conversing on CBs, truckers could help each other avoid speed traps and find truck stops that were selling fuel at cheaper rates. Besides these purely commercial benefits, the radios also built a sense of community among drivers and endowed their profession with a deliciously colorful vocabulary. It was within this milieu that McCall (whose real name was Bill Fries) and Chip Davis wrote the interstate saga, “Convoy.” It’s told by a trucker whose “handle” (CB name) is Rubber Duck. On his long haul from the West Coast to the east, he leads a convoy that eventually includes “a thousand screaming trucks/And 11 long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus.” It’s an altogether delightful tale of good ol’ boy playing outlaw — speeding, bypassing the weighing stations, crashing toll gates and generally causing mayhem among the “bears” (state police) and National Guardsmen trying to stop them. The song was made into a movie in 1978 with Kris Kristofferson as Rubber Duck.
“Hello, This Is Joanie (The Telephone Answering Machine Song),” Paul Evans (1978)
Designed for businesses and initially rented and installed by phone companies, the telephone answering machine invaded the home market in the early 1970s. By the middle of that decade, the technology had become so miniaturized, affordable and easy to install, the home market blossomed. Naturally enough, these personalized devices became tools for lovers, who, if they couldn’t chat with their sweethearts directly, could always leave voice messages. The Joanie in this song has a quarrel with her boyfriend after they’ve both had too much to drink. She leaves in huff, and her rueful boyfriend calls her the next day, only to hear the automated reply, “Hello, this is Joanie.” He leaves a message, asking her to call him back. When she doesn’t, he calls again. Still no answer. Finally, his phone rings and he’s sure it’s Joanie. Instead, it’s a friend who tells him Joanie’s been killed in a car wreck. So he calls again — this time just to hear her voice.
“Fax Me a Beer,” Hank Williams Jr. (1992)
The fax machine was strictly a tool for business in the early 1980s — big, expensive and slow to transmit copy. But by the early ’90s, the contraptions were so small, cheap, fast and easy to install that millions of homes had them. In fact, they became such a technological cliché that Hank Jr. felt the need to take note of them, as he did in his 1992 album, Maverick. He opens the song with a list of such (then) high-tech wonders as lasers, CDs, microchips and VCRs. Given these advances, he says, why not a machine that will “fax me a beer”? How could he know that email was on the horizon?
“First Redneck on the Internet,” Cledus T. Judd (1998)
After his wife runs off with his TV set, Cledus prays for another one but gets, instead, a Mac computer (which he at first believes is a TV that “comes with its own typewriter”). Pretty soon, he’s mastered both Mac and mouse and is playing havoc with his ex’s credit cards and bank account. He even emails her boss, telling him that she’s aiming to take over his job. “He was the first redneck on the Internet/A bona fide, countrified, cyber-threat/He went online just one time/And now they’ll never forget/The first redneck on the Internet.” A more confident Brad Paisley covered this same territory in his 2007 single, “Online.”
So who’s up for a song about drones?