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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    Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man

    On April 7, 1931, Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago. He would grow up to serve in the Marines and work at the Pentagon and for Rand Corporation, eventually becoming disillusioned with the Vietnam War and receiving notoriety as the man behind the release of government documents about the Vietnam War. After the New York Times began publishing the papers in June 1971, the actions prompted the wrath of President Richard M. Nixon and one of the most important Supreme Court cases on the First Amendment.

    The 2009 documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers tells the story of Ellsberg’s life and the Pentagon Papers. Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, the film is required viewing for anyone interested in the Vietnam War. The movie reveals much about the controversies on the home front as well as the lies told by U.S. leaders.

    The documentary approaches the tale by letting Ellsberg and others report the story from first-hand accounts (while Nixon’s perspective only comes through in recordings made at the White House). As much as you think you might know about Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, you likely will learn new information from the film.

    For example, we see the role that Ellsberg’s wife played in his decisions. We also learn that Egil Krogh — one of the “White House Plumbers” involved in breaking into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist — came to see Ellsberg as a principled man.

    The Most Dangerous Man in America takes the position that Ellsberg is an American hero who was willing to go to prison if necessary to try to end an unjust war. While some may disagree with the admiring portrayal, the lessons from the Pentagon Papers still resonate in modern times as we still face issues like Edward Snowden’s release of documents. Thus, the story of Daniel Ellsberg is just as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Oh Oh Domino (Theory)

    During a news conference on April 7, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower first invoked the use of “dominoes” in a phrase that would be used by four presidents for justifying United States involvement in Vietnam. Thus, was born the domino theory.

    During the press conference, Robert Richards of Copley Press asked Pres. Eisenhower to comment “on the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world.” Eisenhower first discussed the situation’s impact on production of materials for the world and on humans being under a dictatorship. Then, he considered the broader implications:

    “Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

    Eisenhower continued that the impact could spread to Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. Other questions about Indochina followed, as well as questions on other topics, such as the possible statehood of Hawaii and Alaska. But it was his comment about pieces used in a tile game that would have lasting significance. Presidents after him — John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon — would continue to grapple with the fear of not wanting to be the president who let the dominoes fall.

    Sixteen years after Pres. Eisenhower’s comments, while the U.S. was still embroiled in Vietnam and while Pres. Eisenhower’s vice-president Richard Nixon now served as president, America had “Domino” on its mind in a completely different context. They were singing along with a hit song by Van Morrison.

    Van Morrison’s “Domino” appeared as the opening song on his album His Band and the Street Choir. After being released as a single, it became a top-10 hit and Van Morrison’s highest charting single ever. The album is a “valentine to the R&B” music that inspired the Northern Irish singer.

    The song’s title had nothing to do with fears of Communists; it was a tribute to singer Fats Domino. Instead of the “dominoes” behind the nation’s war, the Van Morrison song was an uplifting song of renewal as the singer thinks “it’s time for a change” and only asks for some rhythm and blues music.

    The U.S.’s military involvement in Vietnam continued for several more years after “Domino” appeared on the charts. Pres. Eisenhower’s fears of the dominoes falling across the world, though, did not come to fruition. Fortunately, politicians no longer use dominoes to justify military force, and most kids only know “dominoes” as a game or a place to buy pizza. And we still listen to Van Morrison’s “Domino.” Lord have mercy.

    What is your favorite Van Morrison song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    My Lai and “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley”

    On March 16, 1968, U.S. troops in Viet Nam killed approximately 300-500 unarmed civilians in what became known as the My Lai Massacre. But it would not be until November 1969 before the incident became public knowledge in the United States. Despite various charges being filed, only Second Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, would be convicted of any crimes. After being found guilty of killing a number of people in the village, he was sentenced to life in prison, although he would serve three and a half years.

    When Calley’s trial began in late 1970, I was a little kid, absorbing various pieces about the war in Viet Nam, as they filtered through various lenses of my childhood. I did not understand much about My Lai, but it became more prominent in my consciousness when after a trip to a local five-and-dime store, I picked up what looked like an interesting 45 RPM record called “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley.” I do not think I knew anything about the song, so I suppose I picked it because it looked interesting and there was nothing else I wanted to buy that week with my allowance. I took the record home, played it, and became mesmerized by the song with the recognizable music of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I played it over and over again.

    There were other songs about Calley at the time, but I only remember “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” written by Julian Wilson and James M. Smith. At least three different artists recorded the song. The song was eventually covered by John Deere and Jones Bros. & Log Cabin Boys. But I had the original by Terry Nelson and “C” Company, made up of Alabama disc jockey Terry Nelson Skinner (who would later write the Air Supply hit “Even the Nights are Better“) and studio musicians. The group sold over one million copies of the single. The flips side was another song about the horrors of being a soldier in the war called “Routine Patrol.”

    As “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” illustrates, many sided with Calley, claiming he was doing his duty in a land where one could not easily recognize the enemy. Because my understanding of the story came from the song, that would be my image for awhile. But as much as I liked the record, something always seemed off to me about the story. Growing up as a kid during that time, we knew that Viet Nam was complicated and an awful mess, whichever side you were on.

    Hugh Thompson Jr.
    Calley rarely spoke about the My Lai massacre. In 2009, though, he apologized for his part in the killings, although he continued to assert that he was following orders on that day.

    Unfortunately, because I learned about My Lai from the song, I only knew the name of Calley. I did not know the names of those innocent people who were killed. And it would be decades before I would learn that there were real heroes that day, including helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, Jr. and his crew Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. The three men were flying in the area when they saw the massacre taking place. Backed by Colburn and Andreotta, Thompson intervened at the risk of his own safety to stop the slaughter and save the lives of many civilians. After people learned about what happened at My Lai, some Americans attacked Thompson instead of recognizing him as a hero.

    It is a shame that it took so long before I learned about Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta. Someone should have written a song about them.

    Photo of Hugh Thompson, Jr. via public domain.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Springsteen’s Tribute to Walter Cichon and “The Wall”

    In announcing his new upcoming album High Hopes on his website, Bruce Springsteen wrote about one of the songs on the album and the inspiration for the song. After explaining that he wrote “The Wall” after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., he describes how the song was inspired by his memories of fellow New Jersey musician Walter Cichon (pronounced Sha-SHONE). First, Springsteen tells how Cichon played in a local band called the Motifs.

    Walter was one of the great early Jersey Shore rockers, who along with his brother Ray (one of my early guitar mentors) led the ”Motifs”. The Motifs were a local rock band who were always a head above everybody else. Raw, sexy and rebellious, they were the heroes you aspired to be. But these were heroes you could touch, speak to, and go to with your musical inquiries. Cool, but always accessible, they were an inspiration to me, and many young working musicians in 1960′s central New Jersey.

    Below is a 1966 recording of the Motifs singing “If I Gave You Love.”

    But there is more to the story. On his website, Springsteen continues discussing what happened to Walter and how it has affected him through the years.

    Though my character in “The Wall” is a Marine, Walter was actually in the Army, A Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry. He was the first person I ever stood in the presence of who was filled with the mystique of the true rock star. Walter went missing in action in Vietnam in March 1968. He still performs somewhat regularly in my mind, the way he stood, dressed, held the tambourine, the casual cool, the freeness. The man who by his attitude, his walk said “you can defy all this, all of what’s here, all of what you’ve been taught, taught to fear, to love and you’ll still be alright.” His was a terrible loss to us, his loved ones and the local music scene. I still miss him.

    Springsteen has played “The Wall” in concert a few times, including this performance below from New Jersey on November 16, 2005. As in Springsteen’s other songs about the Vietnam War, the song captures the complex emotions still attached to the war, just the way that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, i.e. “the Wall,” does. In the song, Springsteen remembers how “Billy” and his band “Was the best thing this shit town ever had.” And he recounts how the war took that all away: “As the rain falls / And apology and forgiveness have no place here at all.” Before playing the song in the video clip, he explains the inspiration further.

    You may read more about Walter’s service and disappearance on the POW Network website, and his photo is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website. “The Wall” is a beautiful song, with a touching back story. Like others, we look forward to the official release.

    Photo via National Park Service.

    What do you think of “The Wall”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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