Galveston, named after the coastal Texas city its protagonist apparently calls home, is a song that brings with it a remarkable amount of weight. One of Jimmy Webb’s most recognisable and trademark tunes, it was given an intense limelight when popularised by Glen Campbell in 1969. Having found a second wind since as a beautiful, tragic and wistful ditty recorded by Webb himself, its true gravitas was made all the more central when arranged with the right ear. Campbell’s version being an enjoyable and intelligent slice of pop from a time when its timbre was contemporary, it’s Webb’s re-imaginings that make me want to write about it today.
A well-known anti-war song, it was far easier to ignore those sentiments n 1969 – especially when more overt protest songs were in fashion and Campbell chose to convey its messages more generally. The stark intonation of a lonely soldier musing “Oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying” becomes all the more striking when Webb’s instrumentation and tempo follows suit. Its honesty walks hand in hand with its simplicity, awarding it a universal relatability that grasps at your attention. Speaking, at least to me, of loves left behind as much as it does of the terror ahead, it’s something that only the dishonest of us can deny is reality.
The version that hits me hardest opens with a lone dawdling guitar chord, struck at with composed aimlessness in steadfast perpetuity. It’s an unusual start to the song, but in context a somehow mysteriously appropriate one. It feels as sudden as it does appropriate when the chord eventually changes, bringing a second guitar into the mix in anticipation of our opening verse. That’s just about it for the piece’s instrumentation too, as it uses the traditional lo-fi singer-songwriter approach without ever coming close to the obligatory emptiness that usually follows. Sung with the emotional verve its lyrics demand, it’s clear just how much Webb understands his art and words.
As verses build on the tense longing of its subject, we can’t help but be transported right into his perspective. His saddened whines of “Galveston” become surrogate for our own hometowns and birthplaces. The abandoned love, who he hopes may still wait for him on distant beaches, is just a role we naturally cast with our own heart’s examples. Raised above the instinctive connections we make by gorgeous and evolving melodies, everything is quickly brought into expressive balance. You barely notice song-structure this rudimentary when it uses the template to such deep extremes.
Campbell’s version sounds very thin in comparison, despite its layered and bombastic arrangement. Webb, known for challenging this rendition of his composition, managed to slow things down and show that there was quite some truth beyond the breakneck pop of its more famous rendition. While still a great song with Campbell at the helm, it’s staggering just how much more of a footnote it is than its more obscure cousin. With a humble approach, Galveston quickly becomes an essential – one for moody mixtapes for a lifetime to come.
I’m glad it’s stayed low-key enough to avoid some awful “definitive” cover version by an arse bandit who thinks it’s just a love song. Webb re-writing history after Campbell’s slight misfire makes it his own cover version, in a manner of speaking. It underscores the tones left whispered by Campbell so they’re not ignored or misinterpreted; allows them the space to breathe and soak into their listeners. I hope this is something you still might hear floating from the cracks of a third-year University student’s room, but I fear it’s all too likely to be something like Frank Turner instead.