Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Jimmy Webb and the Wichita Lineman

Yesterday while driving home from the Twin Cities I heard a song I hadn't heard in a long time, Wichita Lineman. Even though I never quite knew what the song was about when I was young, I liked the way it sounded. Glen Campbell's recording has a haunting feel that transcends its simple story. Afterward the radio announcer mentioned that the song was written by Jimmy Webb.

A lot of folks don't realize that Jimmy Webb wrote a lot of the memorable tunes that have been part of our generation. His lyrics have been recorded by a litany of superstars from Diana Ross and the Supremes to the Fifth Dimension, Joe Cocker, Johnny Rivers, and Donna Summer. Speaking of Summer, how many of you knew that the San Francisco summer of love hit MacArthur Park was written by Jimmy Webb?

Art Garfunkel in his Up Til Now liner notes gives gracious credit to Jimmy Webb for some of the songs he recorded and shared here, including the tender All I Know as well as Skywriter. And it was Webb who penned nearly all the songs on Art Garfunkel’s Christmas album with Amy Grant.

So, what is it that gives Wichita Lineman its power? Here are the lyrics:

I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road 
Searchin' in the sun for another overload. 
I hear you singing in the wires, I can hear you in the whine 
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.

You know I need a small vacation, but it don't look like rain. 
And if it snows that stretch down south will never stand the strain. 
And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time. 
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.

Like a lot of great poetry it is specific. And its specificity invites transcendant connections. This song is about a blue collar guy, a lineman in Wichita. He works alone, out in the sun, out in the elements. He is in a relationship. And he wishes things were different in this situation.

Maybe you can call it workingman blues. Glen Campbell’s delivery carries ample evidence of existential angst, isolation and longing, that lonesome moan the reverberates in a number of his other tunes as well.

For this one I went to a “song meanings” website to find its backstory.

In our interview with Jimmy Webb, he explained how he puts himself into the shoes of the subjects of this songs. Said Webb: "I've never worked with high-tension wires or anything like that. My characters were all ordinary guys. They were all blue-collar guys who did ordinary jobs. As Billy Joel likes to say, which is pretty accurate, he said, 'They're ordinary people thinking extraordinary thoughts.' I always appreciated that comment, because I thought it was very close to what I was doing or what I was trying to do. And they came from ordinary towns. They came from places like Galveston and Wichita and places like that.

"No, I never worked for the phone company. But then, I'm not a journalist. I'm not Woody Guthrie. I'm a songwriter and I can write about anything I want to. I feel that you should know something about what you're doing and you should have an image, and I have a very specific image of a guy I saw working up on the wires out in the Oklahoma panhandle one time with a telephone in his hand talking to somebody. And this exquisite aesthetic balance of all these telephone poles just decreasing in size as they got further and further away from the viewer - that being me - and as I passed him, he began to diminish in size. The country is so flat, it was like this one quick snapshot of this guy rigged up on a pole with this telephone in his hand. And this song came about, really, from wondering what that was like, what it would be like to be working up on a telephone pole and what would you be talking about? Was he talking to his girlfriend? Probably just doing one of those checks where they called up and said, 'Mile marker 46,' you know. 'Everything's working so far.'"

It’s fascinating how a simple image can trigger so much in an artist’s imagination.

For more Jimmy Webb discography, visit Wikipedia. You may be surprised how much you recognize.

In the meantime, make the most of your day. And if you're trying to connect with someone, I hope you get through.

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