A Song For the Week: Galveston

Galveston Bay at sunset

Galveston Bay at sunset

This Christmas I had the good fortune to receive the recently released but long ago recorded “In Session” CD and DVD featuring both Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb. This session was recorded and filmed in 1988, but until late last year had never had a commercial release. In listening to it over the last few weeks, I have been reminded of two things in particular – for one, the almost symbiotic artistic relationship between Campbell and Webb. It never ceases to amaze me how Webb’s music is so perfect for Campbell and how well Campbell captures the essence of Webb’s songs. The other reminder is what an extraordinary songwriter Jimmy Webb is. It is easy to overlook his best known songs when you have heard them so many times, and it sometimes takes a fresh approach to these kinds of standards to appreciate just how good they are. On In Session we hear renditions of classics like “Where’s the Playground, Suzie?”, “MacArthur Park” and “Wichita Lineman”, but the song that made me fall in love with it all over again was “Galveston”.

Galveston has always been one of my favourite Webb compositions, in fact it probably sits above all others bar Wichita Lineman (how could you top a song with the lines “and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time”). Campbell’s original recording was released in 1969 to great success. Webb notes during the In Session recording that this version was faster than he would have preferred, more of a “medium march”. Three years later Webb recorded the song himself on his “Letters” album. This version was how Webb intended the song to be heard. I have to agree with Webb – I love both renditions, but Webb’s arrangement fits the song so perfectly it is hard to imagine it done any other way. Galveston’s lyrics are reflective, almost to the point of being meditative, and the music requires time to reach a depth equal to the words. Webb is in good voice on the Letters album, but I always longed to hear Campbell’s voice put to Webb’s arrangement. I don’t know how often Glen sang Galveston in this style, but the In Session recording is the only one I have heard. Finally, with the release of In Session, my wish has been granted.

As I stated earlier, Glen’s voice was made for Jimmy’s songs. Glen might argue that Jimmy’s songs were made for his voice, but either way they fit together seamlessly. Campbell has extraordinary control over a voice that glides effortlessly through pop arrangements, bringing a textured country edge or a deep and rounded gospel tinge to proceedings. On this occasion a distinctly spiritual feeling is evident. Between them Campbell and Webb turn a meditation on love and loss into a prayer.

The song’s protagonist is a soldier fighting in the Spanish-American War at the turn of the Twentieth Century, a war fought largely on the foreign soil of Cuba. His is a love song to the girl he has left behind, but it is also a desperate attempt to cling to a reality that is quickly becoming a dream. Campbell’s gentle pleas of “Oh Galveston” sound like a call to God, for help or release, or simply for some light amongst the darkness of war. The last verse in particular brings this home. Campbell sings “Oh Galveston” like a man lost to his fear, then delivers the confirming line with devastating effect: “I am so afraid of dying”. The last words are delivered like a man not knowing if they will be his last. We are left with a glorious visual imprint: “Before I watch your seabirds flying in the sun, at Galveston”. Campbell’s final note when he sings “At Galveston” is as fragile and tender as I have ever heard him.

There are precious few times a standard is improved upon. This is one of those times. The arrangement and rendition make the lyrics hit home so hard it takes your breath away. It was worth the wait.

Campbell’s original recording and arrangement from 1969. It has lost none of its impact, forty three years on.

Webb’s recording from 1972’s Letters album. For an equally good piano based arrangement, check out Webb’s recording on “Ten Easy Pieces”, released in 1996.

In my opinion, the definitive recording. Campbell and Webb on the “In Session” show, recorded in 1988. I urge you to listen to the whole recording. Other highlights include “If These Walls Could Speak” and “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”.

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9 thoughts on “A Song For the Week: Galveston

  1. Wonderful post! You really capture the spirit of this lovely song. It’s also a great reminder of the relationship between Webb (an underappreciated composer) and Campbell. In its way, their connection is as significant as the Warwick/Bacharach musical tie.

    • Thank you so much, I’m always trying to match my style with whatever feeling or thought I’m trying to express. I don’t always get it spot on, but I hope I’m getting better with experience.

  2. Glen did the ballad version on his Live at the Royal festival Hall album in 1977. It is also on youtube and has an orchestra backing. This is a great version also as good as the 1988 recording.

    • Thanks Mike. You’re right, this is the Webb arrangement, thanks for letting me know about that one. It would be interesting to know if Glen performed it this way because it was with Jimmy or if he had started performing it this way regularly. Based on Webb’s comments about the evolution of the song, it would make sense that Glen had started performing this arrangement at least sometimes. The In Session recording is still my favourite, it just seems more of an introspective and intimate performance, which resonates more with me. Both are great though, as you say. Thanks for taking the time to check out my post, much appreciated.

      • I take your point. Obviously the 1977 version was the first time I heard it as a ballad version as it was broadcast by the BBC and was on the live album released after the concert. At the time I thought it was fantastic and again like yourself I also felt it was a better version than the record. The 1988 version is more stripped down and Glen’s voice is strong and full of emotion as he sings . The quality of his voice is unsurpassable. Having said all that when I put on a greatest album and Galveston comes on I still feel this is a fantastic song, sung well, and even though it is faster, the line “I am so afraid of dying ” still still hits hard on the emotions. As someone else said Glen sings the song about a guy who is longing to get home.He’s not making any kind of political statement.I can listen to all three versions back to back and enjoy them all.One final point. It’s not very often an original recording is improved on, but I think that was the case here.
        Mike

        • Agree with you on all of your points, Mike. When writing this piece I listened to several recordings of Galveston, including Jimmy’s. Like you I listened to them back to back. It just emphasises what a great song it is when you can hear so many different renditions and enjoy them all. Let me know if you are aware of any other significant recordings of Galveston, would love to hear them.

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