For many years, I thought Glen Campbell’s “Galveston” was just an ode to a city on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
As I later discovered, the city’s name is entirely incidental to the story, although it is where the great Jimmy Webb, who wrote “Galveston”, happened to be when the idea for the song came to him.
Jimmy Webb is one of the finest songwriters of the late 20th century and someone whose songwriting style chimed especially well with Glen Campbell who had big hits with Jimmy Webb songs like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman”…in addition to “Galveston”…in the late 1960s.
Jimmy Webb also wrote classic songs for other artists including “Up, Up And Away” for The 5th Dimension, “Macarthur Park” for Richard Harris and, one of my personal favourites “P. F. Sloan”, which was never a huge hit, but always brings a tear to my eye.
So if “Galveston” isn’t a song about a city on the Texas Gulf Coast, what is it about?
Well, opinions vary online…although if you’re looking for a varying opinion, somewhere online is usually a great place to find it…
Some would say “Galveston” was an anti-war song. Back in 1969, the Vietnam War was in full swing, so it’s an understandable perspective. However at no point do the lyrics directly mention the war nor do they say anything against it…which seems like an odd way of writing an anti-war song, if you ask me.
No, I think Jimmy Webb was doing something much more subtle than that, which is why he is a such a great songwriter. He was acting as a reporter, observing a position far too many young men and women found themselves in during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and holding it up to the light.
He wasn’t sharing his own perspective. As all great artists do, he was saying, “this is what’s going on at the moment…how do feel about that?”
Much as I like a protest song (“The Eve Of Destruction” is my all-time favourite song), I’d also have to admit that just laying out a set of facts that most people could understand through their own experience and asking the listeners to consider how they feel about that situation impacting on so many families is perhaps even more powerful.