August 23, 2008
Written by Jimmy Webb
Everything old becomes new again, especially in country music, which is as predictably cyclical as the rise and fall of the moon and sun. The string-drenched charm of Glen Campbell’s signature style is garnering hosannas rich with the joy of rediscovery, as it is used to interpret contemporary rock hits on his current record, Meet Glen Campbell.
It’s an effective project because Campbell has always been a quintessential singles artist, and the new record is like a brand new greatest hits collection culled from the best work of other performers. Among Campbell’s own best work, there are several classic country singles, four of which were million-sellers: “Wichita Lineman,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights” and the focus of this entry: “Galveston.”
Released during the height of the Vietnam War, “Galveston” is the inner monologue of a young soldier dreaming of home. The lyrics are striking in their brevity, as a compelling story is told in a mere fourteen lines. “Galveston, oh Galveston”, the full-voiced Campbell sings, “I still hear your sea winds blowin’, I still see her dark eyes glowin’. I was 21 when I left Galveston.”
As he’s on the battlefield, he’s wondering if she’ll still be waiting when he gets home, but his greatest fear isn’t that she’s forgotten him. It’s that she’ll be carrying the flame in vain: “I am so afraid of dying”, he wails, “before I dry the tears she’s crying.”
The production of the song is vintage Campbell, with sweeping orchestral strings and horns. Rather than swamp his performance, they underscore the powerful emotions he is expressing. They are the musical representation of the powerful sounds described in the lyric, both the “sea waves crashing” back home, and the “cannons flashing” on the battlefield. The fear that he is feeling while under attack is overwhelming, but the desire to get back home and see Galveston and the girl who’s waiting there pushes him on.
Campbell’s vocal is beyond reproach, with a particularly chilling “Galveston, oh Galveston” right before his fear of death is confessed. It’s an emotional release that is all the more powerful because of his restrained delivery of the lyric up until that point. And while writer Jimmy Webb didn’t pen it with Vietnam specifically in mind, the song had a heightened impact because of the climate it was released in. For similar reasons, this Campbell classic is worth revisiting today.
“Galveston” is the the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.