July 7, 2013

Contemporary American Classics: "The Wichita Lineman"

A visual hymn to the song and its subject. This cut is from the original in 1968. How does Campbell handle it 43 years later? Not bad. Not bad at all as you can see and hear in the video of his performance on Jools Holland in 2011 after the jump.

"Wichita Lineman" is a popular song written by Jimmy Webb in 1968, first recorded by Glen Campbell and widely covered by other artists. Campbell's version, which appeared on his 1968 album of the same name, reached #3 on the U.S. pop chart, remaining in the Top 100 for 15 weeks. In addition, the song also topped the American country music chart for two weeks, and the adult contemporary chart for six weeks. It was certified gold by the RIAA in January 1969. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" ranked "Wichita Lineman" at #192. It has been referred to as 'the first existential country song'.

"Webb was inspired to write the lyrics when he saw a solitary lineman in rural northern Oklahoma] The lyric describes the longing that a lonely telephone or electric power lineman feels for an absent lover who he imagines he can hear "singing in the wire" that he is working on. Such a sonic vibration is commonly induced by wind blowing across small conductors. There is uncertainty as to which "Wichita" is intended; Wichita, Kansas, Wichita County, Kansas (which is over 250 road miles away), Wichita Falls, Texas, and Wichita County, Texas have all been suggested as possibilities. In his Wichita, Kansas concert, Glen Campbell announced that the song referred to Wichita County, in western Kansas.

"In the first recording, by Glen Campbell, a notable feature of Al de Lory's orchestral arrangement is that the violins and a Gulbransen Synthesizer mimic the sounds that a lineman might hear when attaching a telephone earpiece to a long stretch of raw telephone or telegraph line, i.e. without typical line equalisation and filtering. One would be aware of high-frequency tones fading in and out, caused by the accidental rectification (the rusty bolt effect) of heterodynes between many radio stations (the violins play this sound); and occasional snatches of Morse Code from radio amateurs or utility stations (this is heard after the line of lyric, "is still on the line"). Heterodynes are also referenced in the lyric, "I can hear you through the whine".

"The bass solo was played by Campbell himself on a Danelectro six-string bass borrowed from friend and session bassist Carol Kaye; the pulsing effect is tremolo from a Fender amplifier. On a 1969 appearance on the Smothers Brothers TV show, Campbell played the solo on a Fender Bass VI six-string bass guitar." -- La Wik

"....And I'm do-ing FINE!" [Sending this one out to Emma J.]

Posted by gerardvanderleun at July 7, 2013 10:14 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I did not know, but I'm glad to know now, that this song had a pretty high ranking on a top 500 list, even if it is Rolling Stone. I think it's one of the best pop songs in the American songbook. Anybody hearing just the music would know immediately that it was an American song. Plus the lyrics do capture a visual that does seem uniquely American. I have it in my collection, along with By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Gentle On My Mind. Great music.

Posted by: Kerry at July 7, 2013 3:03 PM

One more worker keeping all running so that those in the coffee houses can post how evil are those types of people...

Posted by: Mikey NTH at July 7, 2013 5:28 PM

It's Washita County. From Wikipedia: "Jimmy Webb's inspiration for the lyrics came while driving through Washita County in rural southwestern Oklahoma. At that time, many telephone companies were county-owned utilities and their linemen were county employees. Heading westward on a straight road into the setting sun, Webb drove past a seemingly endless line of telephone poles, each looking exactly the same as the last. Then, in the distance, he noticed the silhouette of a solitary lineman atop a pole. He described it as "the picture of loneliness." Webb then "put himself atop that pole and put that phone in his hand" as he considered what the lineman was saying into the receiver.[9] Glen Campbell added in a statement to the Dallas Observer that Webb wrote the song about his first love affair with a woman who married someone else.[9]

The actual song lyrics mention the name "Wichita" rather than Washita. Campbell said it was because "Wichita sings better."

Posted by: Jerry at July 7, 2013 6:30 PM

The press celebrated Glen Campbell as the "next big thing," when this hit broke. The Beatles had left the press breathless in anticipating the rave, though things never broke that way again.

Posted by: Estoy Listo at July 7, 2013 7:16 PM

My grandfather was Kansas City lineman. This song makes me miss him terribly.

Posted by: Jewel at July 7, 2013 9:43 PM

And somewhere out there in the Great Beyond, I'm sure a grizzled one time Kansas City Lineman is missing his little girl

Posted by: Callmelennie at July 8, 2013 6:13 AM

"And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time"...best line ever.

One of my favorite songs. Period.

Posted by: Dave at July 8, 2013 6:54 AM

The song makes me wistfully sad for a time long past, when apparently lyrics in a song said something about someone that was moving or touching or meaningful.

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Posted by: Sarah Moore at October 9, 2013 12:54 PM

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Posted by: sarahlovesmuzic at October 21, 2013 7:43 PM

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Posted by: Sean Prince at January 23, 2014 7:09 AM