Songwriter: Jimmy Webb Recorded by: Don Ho, Glenn Campbell, Jimmy Webb
In 1969, public sentiment against the Vietnam War had grown strong in the United States. It was a year after the TET offensive and Richard Nixon, who had campaigned on the promise of peace with honor was the fifth US president looking for a way out of the war. As ’69 wore on, there was outrage over the senseless loss of American soldiers at Hamburger Hill, and the NY Times broke the story, exposed through leaks, of the secrete bombing of Cambodia. In addition, two of the largest anti-war protests draw crowds over 250,000 to Washington D.C.
Musically, there was Woodstock, and there was Altamont as well. David Bowie released “Space Oddity,” his first big hit. King Crimson also debuted, while the Beatles played their last public appearance on the roof at Apple Records. Johnny Cash hit it big with At San Quentin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival released no less than three albums in the same year.
1969 was also the year that Glen Campbell released his version of Jimmy Webb’s song “Galveston.” The song was a hit for Campbell despite going unnoticed when it was first recorded and released as a single by Don Ho in 1968. To many the song is was a pleasant pop hit, but for those who bothered to listen to the lyrics at all there was clearly a message of some kind in the song. Many read it as an anti-Vietnam song, and given the tenor of the times and some of Webb’s own interviews, that is probably true, but because Jimmy Webb is no ordinary songwriter, it is so much more.
There’s no explicit mention of Vietnam in the song, but it’s clearly written from the viewpoint of a young soldier from Galveston, Texas, which certainly makes sense in this context.
Galveston, oh Galveston
I still hear your sea winds blowing
I still see her dark eyes glowing
She was twenty-one
When I left Galveston
This first verse doesn’t even tell us that it’s a soldier. It’s simply the yearning of someone who is remembering home and remembering someone with whom they were in love. There aren’t many specifics, but already Webb has spun a world of emotion here, and what he has chosen to conceal is every bit as important as what he reveals.
Galveston, oh Galveston
I still hear your sea waves crashing
While I watch the cannon flashing
And I clean my gun
And I dream of Galveston
Now we know that this is the song of a man involved in a war, He’s physically there, watching the flashing of cannons and cleaning his gun, the very gun that may be called upon to save his life on any given day. In his mind, though, he’s back in Galveston, remembering the sights and sounds and dreaming of home. And we know that there is the pull of a love interest, a woman, who the singer remembers fondly. People sometimes feel that the use of the word “cannon’ meant that the song refers to a war i an earlier period of U. S. history, but itt is still a term used to refer to artillery during the Vietnam era.
This second verse has been the subject of some interesting history. On Don Ho’s 1968 recording the lyrics are a little different:
Wonder if she could forget me
I’d go home if they would let me
Put down this gun
And go to Galveston
These were Webb’s original lyrics, and they are sometimes interpreted as thoughts about deserting, but I don’t hear it that way. First, the soldier the says he would go home ‘if they would let me.’ So there’s no real thought of defying the law or taking action on this wish. Instead it is the familiar yearning of every soldier on the battlefield.
It is Hector fearing his impending death at the hands of Achilles and wishing to retreat from battle, or Arjuna surveying the battlefield with Krishna and lamenting the fact that it is his destiny to kill friends and even kin in battle. It is the GI in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” longing for the holidays at home.
The Glen Campbell Recording
The Glen Campbell reportedly changed the lyrics for his hit recording of the song. In 1972 when Jimmy Webb recorded his version of the song for his album Letters he kept Campbell’s lyrics, and they are the lyrics used on Webb’s own website. So it’s safe to say the Webb liked the lyrics, maybe even considered them an improvement. But based on some of the songwriter’s comments in interviews over the years, I gather that he feels like maybe Campbell sacrificed some of the song’s meaning in search of a hit sound:
“I play it for the audience the way I wrote it, which is kind of elegiac and more subdued than Glen’s rip-roaring, uptempo version of the song” he told Houston Press in a 2016 interview.
Campbell’s recording of the song was produced and arranged by Al DeLory, a member of the elite group of studio musicians who comprised what became known as The Wrecking Crew. DeLory got his start as a session musician and quickly rose to the top of his profession, playing on sessions for Phil Spector and working with Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds. He was a Capitol Records producer when the label signed Campbell, who was trying to break out of his role as an instrumentalist. The two worked together on a string of Campbell hits, crafting an easy listening country-tinged sound that made Campbell a household name and a pop star.
The song’s tempo is more upbeat, and the chorus is buyoued along by strings and brass. Campbell also played a guitar line over the instrumental outro that adds a country rock flair to the record. It’s easy for listeners to ignore the words and react instead to the emotional swelling of the music that gives the song a heroic feeling.
There’s none of that on Webb’s version. Beginning with a repeated dissonant guitar chord, it settles into a slow meditation that comes on more like a prayer. Galveston becomes, not so much a geographical place as a touchstone for the sacred in this young warrior’s life.
The final verse contains the kernel of the song’s deepest truth:
Galveston, oh Galveston
I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she’s crying
Before I see your sea birds flying
In the sun, at Galveston
I am so afraid of dying. At that moment the song transcends any protsest, any specific time or place and becomes universal. No matter what your thoughts about war or a particular political situation you can relate to that confession. Webb’s artistry gives us this moment, and it is what makes “Galveston” more than a pop song or a protest song.