jimmy webb, glen campbell, and the wichita lineman -- 9/26/17

Today's selection -- from Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman: The unfinished song that became a classic by Mark Savage. In a single afternoon, a young songwriter named Jimmy Webb wrote a song about loneliness he titled "Wichita Lineman." It helped jump-start Glen Campbell's career:

"A simple tale of a lonely telephone repairman working in the vast open plains of the American Midwest, "Wichita Lineman" is one of the most perfectly realised pop songs of all time. Released in 1968, and written by Jimmy Webb, it was the first top 10 single for country singer Glen Campbell, who died on [August 8], aged 81. Like many of his fans, Campbell's reaction to the song was immediate and tender. 'When I heard it I cried,' he told BBC Radio 4 in 2011. 'It made me cry because I was homesick.'

"The lyrics describe a lineman who is also pining for home and imagines he can hear his absent lover 'singing in the wire'. 'I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time,' he tells her. 'And the Wichita Lineman, is still on the line.' Webb, while proud of the song, has always insisted it was unfinished, and says he initially considered that famous couplet 'the biggest, awfullest, dumbest, most obvious false rhyme in history'.

"He wrote the song to order in 1968, after Campbell had found success with another of his songs, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." 'They called me and said, "Can you write us a song about a town?"' he recalled in a Radio 2 documentary about Campbell's career. 'And I said, "I'm not sure I want to write a song about a town right now. I think I've overdone that"'. 'He said, "well, can you do something geographical?" and I spent the rest of the afternoon sweating over Wichita Lineman.'

Although the song is set on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, Webb actually wrote it at a grand piano in Hollywood. ... He had called up the image of a lineman from a childhood journey across the panhandle of Oklahoma. 'There's a place where the terrain absolutely flattens out,' he told the BBC. 'It's almost like you could take a level out of your tool kit and put in on the highway, and that bubble would just sit right there on dead centre. It goes on that way for about 50 miles. In the heat of summer, with the heat rising off the road, the telephone poles gradually materialize out of this far, distant perspective and rush towards you. And then, as it happened, I suddenly looked up at one of these telephone poles and there was a man on top, talking on a telephone. He was gone very quickly, and I had another 25 miles of solitude to meditate on this apparition. It was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that I lifted out of my deep memory while I was writing this song.'

" 'I thought, I wonder if I can write something about that? A blue collar, everyman guy we all see everywhere -- working on the railroad or working on the telephone wires or digging holes in the street. I just tried to take an ordinary guy and open him up and say, "Look there's this great soul, and there's this great aching, and this great loneliness inside this person and we're all like that. We all have this capacity for these huge feelings".'

"But while Webb worked on the lyrics, Campbell and his producer Al DeLory were getting impatient. They were in the recording studio, with a tight deadline, and no song to record. 'They said, "We're really in a hurry, send it over". And I said, "OK, but the third verse I don't have".' What Webb didn't know was that DeLory's uncle had been a lineman in Kern County, California. 'As soon as I heard that opening line,' he later recalled, 'I could visualize my uncle up a pole in the middle of nowhere. I loved the song right away.'

" 'He wrote it for me in no time,' Campbell agreed. 'Jimmy Webb is just that kind of a writer. He's such a gifted man.' ... Musically, the song plays a clever trick by starting in the key of F major before switching to the relative minor, D major and never fully resolving -- echoing the lineman's disjointed state of mind.

Edward Hopper, "Wellfleet Road", 1931

"Webb thought they'd rejected the song. 'A couple of weeks later I ran into him [Glen Campbell] somewhere, and I said, "I guess you guys didn't like the song."' he recalled. 'He said, "Oh, we cut that". I said, "It wasn't done! I was just humming the last bit!"
'He said, "Well it's done now!"'

"Wichita Lineman jump-started Campbell's career, helping the album of the same name go double platinum in the US, and giving the star his first chart hit in the UK. But over the years, Campbell was always careful to highlight Webb's role. 'He's just an exceptional writer. He pours his heart out,' he said. 'And I think that's where the music comes from: the heart.' ...

"And what about that 'dumb' lyric? Over the years, Webb made his peace with the line -- realizing his discomfort over the rhyme had blinded him to the words' raw power. 'Had I known what I was doing, I wouldn't have written that line. I would have found a way to make it rhyme,' he told NPR in 2010. 'It was only years later that I became aware of what a songwriter was even supposed to do. I was really just a kid who was kind of writing from the hip and the heart.'

"David Crary, a real-life lineman who repairs high voltage power lines across America, says he wouldn't change the words for the world. 'I think Jimmy Webb hit the nail on the head,' he told Radio 4. 'It describes a lot of linemen, what they go through on the road, away from their family. 'When I hear that song, or when I'm singing it, it brings lots of memories back of storms that I've been on, whether they're ice storms, hurricanes [or] tornadoes.'

" 'The most important part is getting back to your family in one piece.' "


Mark Savage


Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman: The unfinished song that became a classic


BBC News


August 9, 2017
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