It’s funny what tunes stick in your head, and in my case last night it was Dr Hook and Sylvia’s mother. Anyway as I was supposed to be trying to sleep, somewhere in my brain decided I obviously had nothing else to do with my time than to listen to it on constant loop.
But after listening through it for a number of times it suddenly struck me. Look at the lyrics.
Sylvia’s mother says, ‘Sylvia’s busy
Too busy to come to the phone’
Sylvia’s mother says, ‘Sylvia’s tryin’
To start a new life of her own’
Sylvia’s mother says, ‘Sylvia’s happy
So why don’t you leave her alone?’
And the operator says, ’40 cents more for the next 3 minutes’
Please Mrs. Avery, I just gotta talk to her
I’ll only keep her a while
Please Mrs. Avery, I just wanna tell ‘er goodbye
Or listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvRVekhMf88
Released in 1972 but written by Shel Silverstein some years previously based on an incident in his life. When you start working things out on your fingers, this incident in Silverstein’s life probably happened in the late 1950s, meaning Sylvia was probably born in the 1930s. Somebody interviewed the lady who was probably the original ‘Mrs.Avery’ and she was born in 1907.
It just struck me that this song might be incomprehensible to somebody under twenty, (or perhaps under thirty?)
In our connected society, imagine there being one phone in the house. It was often the lady of the house who answered. So if as a teenager you wished to talk to the girl of your dreams and perhaps arrange a date, unless you managed to impress her mum, it wasn’t going to happen. Forget her Dad, unless her mum was impressed enough by how nicely spoken and polite you were, it wasn’t a case of not getting to first base, you weren’t even going to get into the ground.
And then the operator breaking in! Butting into your conversation to ask for more money!
Oh yes, and the money, Forty cents for three minutes. Apparently the 1960 dollar had the purchasing power of $8.27 now. So that forty cents more is the equivalent to $3.31. Or in real money that’s £2.53.
So when you wonder if your £20 a month phone contract is expensive, it would have bought you twenty-three more minutes with Sylvia’s mother.
And then there’s the bit where Mrs Avery gets rid of him.
“And Sylvia’s mother says, ‘Thank you for callin’
And, sir, won’t you call back again?’”
Now there’s a rare fossil of etiquette. It harks back to the time when the guest in your house was, notionally at least; honouring you by their presence and of course you gave the impression that you’d be delighted to have them back. For a while, the person who phoned you was afforded the same courtesy, and was almost seen in the same light. Certainly it gels nicely with Mrs Avery being born before the First World War.
Obviously that attitude didn’t last. In an era where most landline phone calls are spam that at least is understandable.
But if they ever set this for GCSE, it’s going to need more revision notes than Shakespeare.