The Ambiguous Anti-War Underpinnings of “Galveston”

One of the late Glen Campbell’s greatest recordings is of the Jimmy Webb penned classic, “Galveston.” Although it has been called one of the best anti-war pop songs (even bordering on sedition), the anti-war elements are so understated that I had heard the song many times without ever recognizing its references to war.

Rolling Stone
has noted how Webb originally wrote the song as a protest song during the Viet Nam era.  Don Ho first recorded the song and introduced it to Campbell.  Then, Campbell made some small changes to the lyrics to make it a bit more ambiguous.

The ambiguity is increased by the soaring music and the fact that Campbell wore a uniform in the official video.

The Lyrics to “Galveston”

Yet, it is the ambiguity that makes the song so great. The singer thinks back to the town of Galveston and the love he left there: “I still see her dark eyes glowing./She was twenty one, when I left Galveston.”

The listener hears the first verse and has no idea why the singer left Galveston. But then in the second verse, there is a reference to cannons and the wonderful line, “I clean my gun, and dream of Galveston.”

Yet, to find any anti-war message, a listener must look to the next verse and the song’s final lines.

“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, at Galveston, at Galveston.”

One may still view the song as a soldier looking back on the love he left behind. In that sense, the song is similar to Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas.” Or one may take the line about the fear of dying as a reminder of the horrors of war, which takes the lives of so many young people.

Original Lyrics

Webb was a great writer, but it is hard to argue that the ambiguous verse Campbell added to replace Webb’s more anti-war verse was an improvement. In fact, when Webb recorded his song in 1972, he sang it with Campbell’s tweak to the lyrics.

According to Wikipedia, the original second verse as sung by Don Ho was:

“Wonder if she could forget me;
I’d go home if they would let me;
Put down this gun,
And go to Galveston.”

The video below of someone’s trip to the beach in Galveston features these original lyrics in the Don Ho version.

Campbell replaced that verse with the verse about cannon’s flashing and cleaning his gun. Gone was the reference to the fact that the soldier would leave the war if he could. Instead, we just know he thinks of Galveston and his love while he cleans his gun. Yet, there is not much difference in meaning, and Campbell also left in the line about the fear of dying.

Webb and Campbell

In the video below, Webb and Campbell discuss the song before playing a slower, soulful version with Webb on the piano.

Webb himself has been a bit ambiguous about the meaning behind the song. In a Sound Observations interview, he claimed: ““If there was a statement, and obviously I was saying something, I prefer to say it wasn’t anti-war – that it was more about an individual getting involved in a war and realizing that he’d rather be somewhere else.” He then went on to explain that it was not to be a “hit-you-over-the-head” protest song.

Yet, Webb’s comments did reveal there was a message that became hidden in Campbell’s version: “But a lot of people didn’t get it anyway. Because, Glen pretty much cut it up-tempo. It was kind of like a march. It was kind of happy. It sounded almost patriotic.”

Either way, it is a beautiful song, likely made more beautiful by the clash of the anti-war writer and the more conservative singer who supported the Viet Nam War. One can hear that tension in the beautiful song about a soldier longing for his Texas home, made more beautiful by the wonderful voice of Glen Campbell.

What is your favorite anti-war song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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