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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    I Have to Leave You: Glen Campbell’s Adiós

    Glen Campbell, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, has given his fans one last gift of a final studio album, Adiós.  Campbell recorded the album after his Goodbye Tour and the filming of the documentary I’ll Be Me.

    The new album features some of Campbell’s favorite songs.  Rolling Stone claims the album “stands among Campbell’s best – heartbreaking and imbued with poignancy, but sung with the same pure, sparkling vocals that are a distinguishing hallmark.”

    Songwriter Jimmy Webb wrote the title track, “Adiós,” along with three other tracks on the album.  Webb wrote several of Campbell’s biggest hits, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”

    Like the song that had been billed as Campbell’s final song in September 2014 — “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” — the lyrics to “Adiós” achieve special meaning considering Campbell’s medical condition.  But it is not a new song.  Linda Ronstadt had an Adult Contemporary hit with it in 1990.

    And “Adiós” is not new for Campbell either.  Webb has explained that he and Campbell used to play the song all the time in various places, including their homes, hotels, and dressing rooms. Check out the recording of the song, produced by Campbell’s longtime friend Carl Jackson.

    Don’t think that I’m ungrateful,
    And don’t look so morose;

    Jackson explained that in order to help Campbell record the songs, he printed the lyrics in big print.  And sometimes they did one line of a song at a time. But, Jackson explained, Campbell had no trouble remembering the melodies and the correct keys.

    Adiós will hit stores and the Internet on June 9, 2017. Other tracks on the album include a duet with Willie Nelson on his song “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Also, the album features Campbell’s interpretation of  “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Merle Haggard, The Impressionist

    We all know Merle Haggard was a great talented songwriter and singer. But a clip from The Glen Campbell Show also shows his impressionist talents.  He was pretty good at copying the voices of some other country music greats.

    In this video, Haggard impersonates several great country singers.  He does his version of Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash.

    Also in this segment, Buck Owens and Johnny Cash show up to join in the fun. Check it out.

    See our previous post on Johnny Cash’s impersonation of Elvis Presley.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Mystery of Bobbie Gentry

    Roberta Lee Streeter, who later took the stage name Bobbie Gentry, was born in Chickasaw County, Mississippi on July 27, 1944.  Best known for the song “Ode to Billie Joe,” the singer-songwriter eventually became almost as mysterious as the song.

    Bobbie Gentry released her first single, “Mississippi Delta,” in 1967.  But it was the flip-side song, “Ode to Billie Joe” that became the hit. There are various reports that the four-minutes-plus song was originally written as a seven-minute song with extra lyrics, although others doubt that story.

    Ode To Billie Joe, the album that featured the song, also became a hit.  It replaced The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the number one position on the Billboard Albums Chart.

    The Mysteries of “Ode to Billie Joe”

    Listeners loved “Ode to Billie Joe” partly because it left so many questions unanswered.  The song tells the story of two Mississippi teen lovers who share a secret, with the young man, Billie Joe MacAllister, committing suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

    In the song, the young woman listens to her parents talk about Billie Joe.  The parents do not know what the listeners understand about the young woman’s connection to the young boy.

    Fans still debate what the girl and the boy earlier threw off the bridge.  But Gentry has stated that the item is not the point of the song.

    Gentry explained to Fred Bronson in an interview, “[T]he real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”

    Below, Bobby Gentry performs “Ode to Billie Joe” on BBC Live in 1968.

    The year “Ode to Billie Joe” was released, Gentry won three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist.  Rolling Stone today lists “Ode to Billie Joe” as the 47th greatest country song of all time.

    Gentry’s Career After “Ode to Billie Joe”

    After “Ode,” Gentry continued to write and record songs like “Fancy” (later covered by Reba McIntyre).

    Gentry hosted a TV show on BBC-TV. Below is an episode of The Bobbie Gentry Show from 1968.

    The 1970s was the era of variety shows, and Gentry appeared on several of them.  For example, she appeared with The Smothers Brothers and on Dick Van Dyke’s 1976 show Van Dyke and Company. In 1974 she even hosted her own summer replacement CBS variety show, The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour.

    Below, Gentry sings “Let it Be Me” with Glen Campbell on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in 1969.

    The song was eventually transformed into a film that provided its own answers to the questions asked in the song. In 1978, Max Baer, Jr. directed Ode to Billie Joe, which starred Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor.

    Gentry re-recorded “Ode to Billie Joe” for the movie.  Below is the trailer

    In 1978, Gentry decided to retire and married singer-comedian Jim Stafford.  The marriage ended after about a year, but the retirement was more lasting.  In the last several decades, Gentry has stayed out of the public eye and denied requests for interviews.

    In a June 2016 Washington Post story, reporter Neely Tucker wrote of efforts to find Gentry.  The reporter tracked down Gentry to a gated community about a two-hour drive from the location of the Tallahatchie Bridge, which had collapsed in 1972.

    The reporter called the number of the house and asked for Gentry.  The person who answered said that Gentry did not live there and hung up, although the reporter believed the person speaking was Gentry.

    So we do not know much about Bobbie Gentry during the last several decades.  But she is entitled to her privacy, just as we can be thankful she entertained us and gave us some great recordings, including one of the most mysterious songs of all time.

    Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule (“I Kissed a Girl”) even took the mystery about Bobbie Gentry and turned it into a song.  Her song “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” is, of course, in the style of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

    Wherever Bobbie Gentry is now, we wish her a happy and peaceful birthday.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Groundbreaking Rock and Roll Movie, “The T.A.M.I. Show”

    On December 31, 1964, American International Pictures released The T.A.M.I. Show in theaters as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” This early rock concert film gave rock and roll fans a snapshot of some of the biggest bands of the time and was groundbreaking.

    “T.A.M.I.” stands for “Teenage Awards Music International,” although some promotional materials also used “Teen Age Music International.” But the important part of The T.A.M.I. Show is the music, filmed from the standpoint of the audience.  The technique made viewers feel like they were at the show recorded at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 28 and 29, 1964.

    Below is the trailer for the film.

    The general consensus is that James Brown gives his greatest filmed performance here, an outstanding display of passion and performing experience that made the Rolling Stones regret they had to follow him. But there are other highlights throughout the concert, including the 18-year-old Lesley Gore and a surprisingly loose performance by The Beach Boys.

    Although producer Bill Sargent lost the rights to the film and it disappeared for decades, it is now available for your viewing on DVD (with extras) and with various performances on YouTube.  Below, James Brown performs “Please, Please, Please.”

    Performers include Jan and Dean (over the credits), Chuck Berry, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, The Supremes, The Barbarians, James Brown and The Famous Flames, and The Rolling Stones.

    Artists are still making great music today, but it is hard to imagine people agreeing on so many great performers in one film now. So, travel back to another time, and check out the Rolling Stones closing the show, joined by others on the stage.

    Some trivia tidbits: The opening credits list The Blossoms with the performers, but they are not introduced when they appear as the backing singers for Marvin Gaye (or when later they appear to encourage James Brown to return to the stage). The Blossoms were used to not getting credit, having recorded the 1962 hit “He’s a Rebel” without credit.

    Also, future actress Teri Garr and future recording star Toni Basil appear as background dancers in the film, and singer Glen Campbell and musician Leon Russell played in the show’s backing band, The Wrecking Crew. Reportedly, filmmaker John Landis and future Partridge Family star David Cassidy, who were seventh grade classmates at the time, were in the audience for the show.

    What are your favorite parts of The T.A.M.I. Show? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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