Most people of my age will remember these songs, but only in the versions popularized by Glen Campbell, who made them famous, and undoubtedly earned Webb a great deal of money, but to my ears didn’t quite do them justice, with their overly pop-oriented, AM radio-friendly arrangements, full of strings and horns like something Nelson Riddle would have overseen. There’s no indication that Webb, who obviously got along very well with Campbell, ever thought the highly popular singer’s treatments were a little, well, ham-fisted, but that’s how I felt about them when I revisited them a few years back, remembering their haunting melodies and poignant lyrics, and wondering how they’d sound after all these years. They hadn’t aged well. Nobody could fully kill such songs, no matter what he did with them, but still…What a joy, then, to find these beautifully understated, sparely-arranged takes recorded by Webb himself, which strip away all the dross and leave behind uncluttered gems that sound about as much like the familiar chart-toppers as A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall sounds like The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.
These songs are about ordinary guys, and are thus in the finest sense quintessentially American, very much in the tradition that stretches back beyond Woody Guthrie and carries on today in the work of Bruce Springsteen, whose songs are similarly concerned with the stress and pain of the common folk without whose sweat and sacrifice nothing runs, and vital systems fall apart. It’s the same spirit that animates all sorts of their popular culture, and high art too, pieces like Copland’s magisterial Fanfare For The Common Man, a work which was deliberately and quite pointedly premiered on the date income taxes came due during 1943, and was written to honour the millions of citizen soldiers who were then fighting fascism all over the globe. Sure, the mythology of the working class hero can sometimes veer a little ways into tiresome, rather cloying territory, and even feel sometimes like a cruel joke being played on the rubes by chortling plutocrats – no, no, you don’t want to be wealthy like me, little man, for ‘tis far nobler to earn an honest wage for an honest day’s work! – but when it’s done right, the way Webb did it, it’s hard to hold with such sour perspectives. Listen to Jimmy’s own words about Wichita Lineman:
I wanted it to be about an ordinary fellow…What I was really trying to say was, you can see someone working in construction or working in a field, a migrant worker or a truck driver, and you may think you know what’s going on inside him, but you don’t. You can’t assume that just because someone’s in a menial job that they don’t have dreams … or extraordinary concepts going around in their head, like ‘I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.’ You can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet. And that’s really what the song is about.
The song was written specifically at Glen Campbell’s request, whose only instruction was to produce something linked to a certain place, any place would do, just something that used the name of a town, like By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Webb’s first hit for Campbell. Webb says that at first he didn’t want to write about another town, but warmed to the idea when he remembered seeing a lone worker toiling up a telephone pole by the side of the highway, back when he was a kid in Oklahoma, and wondered whether something couldn’t be done around the concept of a civic employee:
There’s a place where the terrain absolutely flattens out. It’s almost like you could take a [spirit] level out of your tool kit and put in on the highway, and that bubble would just sit right there on dead centre. It goes on that way for about 50 miles. In the heat of summer, with the heat rising off the road, the telephone poles gradually materialize out of this far, distant perspective and rush towards you. And then, as it happened, I suddenly looked up at one of these telephone poles and there was a man on top, talking on a telephone. He was gone very quickly, and I had another 25 miles of solitude to meditate on this apparition. It was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that I lifted out of my deep memory while I was writing this song.
You never know where a songwriter is going to find his inspiration, do you? As Allen Morrison wrote in American Songwriter magazine:
Imagine pitching this song idea in 1968: There’s this guy who works on telephone poles in the middle of Kansas. He’s really devoted to his job. Rain or shine, he’s committed to preventing system overloads. It’s really lonely work, and he misses his girlfriend. Does this sound like a hit to you?
Maybe not when you put it that way, but yeah, it sure did to Campbell, who fell in love with it straight away, and made a recording while Webb still considered it a work in progress. His instincts were confirmed when the song proved immediately compelling to millions of record buyers. There was something about that superficially prosaic opening line: I am a lineman for the County. Right away, you knew exactly where the song was going, and Webb didn’t disappoint:
I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain
And if it snows
that stretch down south
won’t ever stand the strain
He’s just a working stiff with a job to do, but it’s an important job, a skilled job, and he means to do it right. It was a sentiment that hit the sweet spot with a whole generation of folks who’d grown up believing that being just like the Wichita lineman was the only way to to take a decent pride in yourself and live with dignity.
Galveston, two versions of which are attached above*, tells a much sadder story about a young soldier who’s far from home and wishes to God he wasn’t, which Webb always insisted wasn’t an anti-war song, not exactly; it was just about a regular kid caught up in something he didn’t understand and didn’t want anything more to do with, horribly frightened and hoping to live through it. Most people at the time thought it was about Viet Nam, but the lyric about facing the flashing cannons indicates the composer had a much earlier conflict in mind, maybe the Civil War, or maybe, according to some sources, the Spanish-American War, which was fought just a couple of years before the Great Hurricane of 1900 all but wiped Galveston Island off the map in what remains the most deadly natural disaster in American history, killing somewhere between 6,000 -12,000 people. If so, then the heartbreaking subtext of the song is that the soldier, if he survived, went home either to be killed young anyway, or face the devastated aftermath. As with a lot of his other songs, the sheer, straightforward plainness of the lyrics is what lends them power:
Galveston, oh Galveston
I still hear your sea waves crashing
While I watch the cannons flashing
I clean my gun
And dream of Galveston
I still see her standing by the water
Standing there looking out to sea
And is she waiting there for me?
On the beach where we used to run
Galveston, oh Galveston
I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she’s crying
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun
I am so afraid of dying. I guess that about sums it up. I’m reminded of Lili Marlene, featured a while back in Songs of the Day, and inclined to second-guess Webb’s judgment that he didn’t really write an anti-war anthem.
Jimmy didn’t stroke a grand slam every time he stepped up to the plate – remember [shudder] MacCarthur Park?** – but who does? Now that I’ve heard his own renditions of these songs, I realize I’ve never really given him his due, and I’m glad to have discovered from reading up a bit on his career that his peers have always held him in the highest regard. It turns out that all I needed to be set straight was to look him up in Wikipedia:
Webb was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990. He received the National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, the Songwriters Hall of Fame Johnny Mercer Award in 2003, the ASCAP “Voice of Music” Award in 2006, and the Ivor Novello Special International Award in 2012. According to BMI, his song “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was the third most performed song in the fifty years between 1940 and 1990. Webb is the only artist ever to have received Grammy Awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration.
In 2020, Wichita Lineman was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
*The one performed on acoustic takes a little while to get going, but is well worth your time.
**I can crack wise, but it was a massive hit for two different artists in successive decades, and probably set him up for life.