“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 3

Galveston is a remarkable place – picturesque, historically significant, architecturally ornate, culturally diverse. The city owes each quality to its location.

Perched on the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, situated on a sliver of sand three miles from the mainland, the city has squeezed more than its share of life and death into its not-quite two centuries. In the late 1800s, it was one of the country’s busiest seaports and generated vast wealth on the island. The wealthy repaid the city by erecting brilliantly colorful Victorian mansions up and down the city’s main avenues. Between 1839 and 1920, the Port of Galveston admitted 750,000 immigrants from around the world. From 1907 until the outbreak of World War I, the Galveston Movement gave refuge to thousands of Jewish immigrants from Russia and eastern Europe, many escaping pogroms.

When Galveston’s port was surpassed by Houston’s in the early twentieth century, the island’s economic engine turned to tourism. As in most seaports, vice – prostitution, Prohibition-era liquor, and illegal gambling –became a booming business. The city was a place apart, and by the Roaring Twenties, those in the know took to calling it the Free State of Galveston.

A crackdown in the late 1950s crippled not only the vice industries but tourism, and the island began to decline economically. But the weakened economy resulted in less pressure to expand and tear down old buildings. Inadvertently, the crackdown made it possible for preservationists to save much of old Galveston. The result, along with a fully revived tourist industry, is the charming city we have today.

When I hear Glen Campbell’s 1969 version of “Galveston,” this is what I imagine: Not the scared and lovesick soldier that Webb intended as the subject, but the soldier’s picturesque home. When I hear Campbell’s later version, or Webb’s, I remember not only the soldier, but something else about his home.

Galveston’s location makes it vulnerable. In 1900, a hurricane killed at least 6,000. It remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. The extraordinary engineering projects that followed the Great Storm have prevented a comparable disaster, but weather-related catastrophe will always be the cost of living in Galveston.

And the weather is getting worse. Climate change has caused sea levels to rise and hurricanes to become more numerous and intense. The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a massive, $30 billion coastal barrier intended to protect the city, and it’s received initial funding approval from Congress. Will it be enough to ensure that Galveston survives into the next century?

As a Galveston chauvinist – someone who loves the city and can’t help but feel that a song named “Galveston” is about Galveston, even if it’s not – this vulnerability is what I hear in the more authentic versions of the song. The soldier’s vulnerability is mirrored by Galveston’s. But Galveston is more than a victim of its location. It’s beautiful and temperate and human-scaled, and it’s packed to the gills with history and culture.

There’s zero evidence that Webb was thinking of either the vulnerability or the beauty of Galveston when he wrote the song. He didn’t write a ballad about a city. But when I hear either Campbell’s bright-hued hit or the melancholy versions, I’ll think of Galveston. Together, they feel richer and, yes, truer, than either alone.

“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 3

“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 2

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.

“Galveston” and Galveston, pt. 1

On the rare chance that you are unfamiliar with Glen Campbell’s 1969 version of “Galveston,” brighten your day and sing along with Glen:

Galveston, oh Galveston 
I still hear your sea winds blowing 
I still see her dark eyes glowing 
She was twenty-one 
When I left Galveston 

​Galveston, oh Galveston 
I still hear your sea waves crashing 
While I watch the cannon flashing 
And I clean my gun 
And I dream of Galveston

I still see her standing by the water 
Standing there, looking out to sea 
And is she waiting there for me? 
On the beach where we used to run 

Galveston, oh Galveston 
I am so afraid of dying 
Before I dry the tears she’s crying 
Before I see your sea birds flying 
In the sun, at Galveston

The song was written by Jimmy Webb, and these are the lyrics he sang when he got around to recording it himself for the first time in 1972. But they aren’t the original lyrics. We know this because Don Ho sang “Galveston” in 1968, a year before Campbell took it to no. 1 on the country chart. There are subtle changes in the first and third verses, but the second verse is altogether different:

Galveston, oh Galveston
Wonder if she could forget me
I’d go home if they would let me
Put down this gun
And go to Galveston

Webb wrote “Galveston” during the height of the Vietnam War, and for the conservative Campbell, Webb’s original lyric flirted with an anti-war sentiment, so Campbell changed the verse. There were other changes. Ho’s lugubrious vocal was replaced by Campbell’s open-hearted tenor, the sluggish pace became brisk, and the syrupy arrangement gave way to soaring strings and a cheerfully galumphing bass guitar solo by Campbell himself.

Perhaps inadvertently, Campbell made Galveston the star of “Galveston.” The new version could have been commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce. (Sure enough, in 1969 Galveston invited Webb to be Grand Marshal of the Shrimp Festival Parade. Against his better judgment, he accepted, and got pelted with shrimp because of his long hair.)

But the song is not about Galveston. Nor is it a subtle protest against the Vietnam War, a once-popular interpretation even of Campbell’s sanitized version. As Webb has said more than once, it’s about a soldier wishing he were somewhere else. The somewhere happens to be Galveston, because (presumably) it’s his home, and because (emphatically) Galveston is the place he remembers when he remembers his girlfriend.

Why did Webb choose Galveston? Why did he choose Phoenix in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” or Wichita in “Wichita Lineman”? As far as I can tell, Webb has never answered these questions. But I’m sure the answers have much more to do with the priorities of a good lyricist – meter, rhythm, images – than with anything unique to the places.

What is clear is that Webb thought Campbell got “Galveston” entirely wrong. Listeners would have to wait three years to hear how its author thought an authentic “Galveston” should sound.