When Jimmy Webb released his own version of “Galveston” in 1972, it sounded like a long-suppressed protest: “This is not a happy song!”
He opens by strumming, arhythmically and for a full minute, a stridently dissonant chord. When the band enters, the tempo is more like Don Ho’s dirge than Glen Campbell’s hit. The arrangement is spare – no drums, no strings, no brass, no guitar solo – and Webb’s voice has none of the casual brio of Campbell’s. Webb’s “Galveston” lives in a different emotional universe. Curiously, Campbell’s revised lyrics – the changes that made it even more explicitly not a protest song – remain.
Campbell had sung “Galveston” as a soldier’s fond remembrance of home. The mood was at cross purposes with the lyrics, which were about a soldier longing to be delivered from danger and returned to his girlfriend and the place of their time together. Webb made his point unmissable.
Meanwhile, Webb and Campbell had become good friends and, over time, Webb convinced him that a slower, more reflective reading of “Galveston” better served the song. This version of Campbell’s, from 1988, and Webb’s own on his 1996 album Ten Easy Pieces, harmonically richer as a piano ballad than his 1972 interpretation, are in emotional sync with the song’s lyrics.
When I played Campbell’s 1988 revision for my father, he wasn’t having it. Dad’s a fan of Galveston the city, and I think that, generally, he prefers happy over sad music. I also suspect that whether he likes or dislikes a song is much more a matter of music than lyrics. In each respect, I’m like Dad.
There’s no denying that Campbell’s later version and Webb’s own are far closer in spirit to the song’s lyrics. Galveston is incidental to “Galveston.” Both of the later versions convey an emotional richness and complexity that Campbell didn’t attempt in 1969.
But musically, Campbell’s original version conveys a truth that the truer versions lack. Webb knew about Galveston from a couple boyhood trips he took with his dad, a Baptist minister who visited the city for revivals. He remembered the “big water” and “big boats,” as he called them in a 2016 interview with the Houston Press. The place left its mark. That memory of a place, wild but familiar, awesome but safe, is what comes through in Campbell’s original.
Together, these two very different approaches to “Galveston,” the celebratory and the melancholic, suggest a third way of regarding the actual Galveston.