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;
    Adios,
    Adios.

    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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    Highwaymen Reunite at Grammys (Sort Of)

    Sunday night the 56th Annual Grammy Awards had various moments, including what was billed as a reunion of The Highwaymen. The two surviving members of the supergroup — Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson — were joined by Merle Haggard and Blake Shelton. But the performance was only partly a tribute to the band that released three albums and a recognition of its deceased members Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, as most of the performance acknowledged the individuals on stage. That was okay, though, as it was good to see the three legends on stage with Blake Shelton giving the group a little shot of “youth.”

    As you may see in the following video, the performance opens with the two surviving Highwaymen singing a little of the group’s hit “Highwayman,” a song about reincarnation written by Jimmy Webb. Then, they are joined by Haggard and Shelton, singing Haggrard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which had been a hit for Nelson and Jennings.

    Many years ago, I saw the original Highwaymen perform at the Houston Astrodome. It was a memorable experience to see the country music legends all together, and at that performance they did a lot of individual songs too. So in a sense, the reunion continued that tradition of being more than just about songs by the Highwaymen. With Cash and Jennings gone, of course the band can never be the same. But like another Grammy sort-of reunion of another great quartet that had Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr playing together, we will take what we can get, while also remembering those who can no longer perform.

    What was your favorite performance at the Grammys? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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