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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    Modern Murder Ballads: “Becky’s Bible”

    In the 1600’s, a significant number of ballads in Europe told stories centering around a killing.  This category of “murder ballads” soon took root in America, as settlers brought some of the Old World songs to the new while also creating new classics.  Something about the blood and the conflict, tied up with tragedy, have made many of these songs endure.

    Today, we get most of our blood and guts from movies and TV.  Pop stars are not likely to sing about murder and mayhem.  Yet, the murder ballad does live on in other genres like hip hop and country music, areas of music that are more willing to explore the human condition.

    One of my favorite modern murder ballad’s is Chris Knight‘s “Becky’s Bible.” The song appeared on his album A Pretty Good Guy, which had the unfortunate release date of September 11, 2001.

    “Becky’s Bible” begins with one of the great opening lines: “Let the beer bottle / Rattle on my pistol / On the seat of my Chevy pick up truck.”  He thus captures three country music tropes — beer, guns, and trucks — in one line that also sets up a wonderful tale.

    There does not seem to be an official video for the song, but here is a decent fan-made video.

    The song does not focus on the crime, though.  Instead, we join the singer while he is on the run.  We get the idea that the singer was accused of cheating at cards and then somehow it escalated into gunfire.

    The wonderful part of the song is that Knight is able to make the listener more interested in the fleeing man than in the crime. The singer tells us his plan for running, but he recognizes that he will eventually get caught.  We sympathize with him because his thoughts keep going back to his girlfriend or wife.

    I don’t wanna see the daylight;
    But my Becky is alone tonight;
    I wonder if she’s waiting up for me.

    Soon, his thoughts turn to wondering if Becky’s Bible is in his truck’s glove box. “Cause I’m sure gonna need it if that boy died.”

    It is still night and the singer is still on the run when the song ends. So we do not know if he is eventually caught, but we have clues from the singer’s certainty of his impending doom.

    We care about him, though, because he cares about Becky. Although throughout the song he has recounted how his best chance for escape lies in it staying dark, at the end, he wishes for daylight because it might bring some comfort to Becky. “I’ll be prayin’ for some daylight, / Because my Becky’s alone tonight.”

    Here is a live version, although you can barely hear Knight because of the fans singing along. The song has a wonderful catchy tune, so I can’t say I blame them.

    Knight’s most recent album is Little Victories (2012) which we reviewed here.

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    Damien of Molokai . . . With Music By Tom Russell

    Tom Russell’s concept album The Rose of Roscrae tells the story of an young man who flees Ireland to become an outlaw on the American frontier.  During the outlaw’s travels, he hears about Father Damien, a priest in Hawaii who works with lepers.  And he dreams of joining him.

    Father Damien was a real person who was born as Jozef De Veuster on January 3, 1840.  As portrayed in Russell’s story, Damien was a Roman Catholic Priest from Belgium.  And he did leave his native Belgium to minister to people with leprosy in what then was the Kingdom of Hawaii.

    Russell’s songs about Damien led me to want to know more about him. Lately, I have been reading The Life and Letters of Father Damien, Apostle of the Lepers.

    Father Damien became known around the world for his work even while he was still alive.  With the fame also came some criticism, often highlighting the struggles between the natives of the islands and the influence of the Europeans and Americans.

    Tom Russell’s Father Damien

    In Tom Russell’s songs about Father Damien, he makes reference to the criticisms.  And he also mentions that poet Robert Louis Stevenson defended Damien.  It is true that Stevenson, who visited Hawaii after Damien’s death, became an admirer of Damien’s work and wrote about him.

    In “The Hands of Damien,” Russell’s protagonist JohnnyBehind-the-Deuce reacts to hearing about the work of Father Damien. The discovery that someone like Damien exists helps Johnny begin to seek his own redemption.

    In another song, Johnny hits a low point and imagines seeking guidance from Father Damien.  The song is “Damien (A Crust of Bread, A Slice of Fish, A Cup of Water).”

    Tom Russell wrote about “Damien” on his Facebook page:

    “We read “Damien the Leper,” in high school. Written by Mia Farrow’s father, film director John Farrow. I always thought this guy took it to the Western limit…the edge…a leper colony on Molokai. He was from Belgium. Robert Lewis Stevenson defends him. Johnny Behind the Deuce is gonna join him but never makes it . . . he returns to Ireland.”

    I was a little surprised to read Russell reveal Johnny never made it to meet Father Damien. As in all song cycles, the story is a little cryptic at times.  But I had imagined that Johnny actually had gone to meet Father Damien at some point in his life.

    After working with people with leprosy for sixteen years, Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy himself, dying of the disease on April 15, 1889.

    Tom Russell is not the only fan of Father Damien. India’s Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this “martyr of charity.” April 15 is now a holiday known as Father Damien Day in Hawaii.   Father Damien was eventually canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009.

    For more on Father Damien, the following video summarizes his life story.

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    D.L. Menard: “The Back Door”

    Cajun music singer-songwriter D.L. Menard recently passed away on July 27, 2017. By all reports, Menard was a warm and engaging man who always had time for his fans. His most popular recordings include “Under the Oak Tree,” “Rebecca Ann,” “Bachelor’s Life,” “La Valse de Jolly Rogers,” and “She Didn’t Know I Was Married.” But his most endearing legacy may be “The Back Door” (“La Porte En Arrière”) which he wrote and performed for audiences around the world.

    Menard was born Doris Leon Menard in Erath, Louisiana on April 14, 1932. He began performing music at the age of 17, and he met Hank Williams at the age of 18. Menard, who continued through his musical career to work as a craftsman, became a world-wide ambassador for Cajun music, so that he is sometimes called “The Cajun Hank Williams.”

    “The Back Door” (“La Porte en Arrière”)

    He wrote his biggest hit, “The Back Door,” during a shift working at a gas station. Menard’s song is about sneaking back home after a night of partying. It became a hit in 1962.  And music fans today recognize the song as one of the most popular Cajun songs of all time.

    Menard talks about “The Back Door” and then performs it in the video below. Even if you do not recognize the title of the song, you might recognize it once you hear it. Either way, it will make you want to get up and two-step.

    Menard drew inspiration for “The Back Door” from Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues.” In the audio recording below, Williams sings “Honky Tonk Blues” live at The Grand Ole Opry in 1952.

    In 2014, Rolling Stone listed Menard’s “The Back Door” (“La Porte en Arrière”) as the 72nd greatest country song of all time. It was even ahead of that other wonderful Cajan classic, Harry Coates’ “Jole Blon,” which was at 99 (and which even Bruce Springsteen recorded with Gary U.S. Bonds).

    What is your favorite D.L. Menard song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Marty Brown Live in Calgary 1992

    This video gem captures country singer-songwriter Marty Brown performing several songs in 1992, long before he became a fan favorite on America’s Got Talent. The show is from an appearance at Longhorn Dance Hall in Calgary, AB, Canada.

    Brown sings songs such as “Don’t Worry Baby,” “My Wildest Dreams,” “Your Daddy’s Long Gone,” Hank Williams’s “Honky Tonkin’,” and “Honey I Ain’t No Fool” (one of my favorites, starting at the 13:26 mark).

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