The Story and Meaning Behind “Galveston,” Glen Campbell’s Masterful Interpretation of a Jimmy Webb Classic

Anti-war song or homesick, lovesick lament? Or a little of both? Those are the questions surrounding “Galveston,” the classic track laid down by Glen Campbell in 1969. The song gets claimed by country and pop audiences alike, and why wouldn’t they claim it, considering how brilliant it is?

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What is the song about? Why did songwriter Jimmy Webb choose that city as the title? And what changes did Campbell make to the lyrics? Let’s take a trip back to “Galveston” to find out all the answers.

Webb’s Memories

Jimmy Webb has been a songwriting machine throughout his career, churning out ambitious, heartfelt songs for all manner of artists. Why immortalize “Galveston” in song? He had visited that Texas location as a youth during the travels of his father, who was a Baptist minister. The seaside location provided him with excellent imagery to contrast the war-front setting of the protagonist.

Since this song was written in the second half of the ‘60s, it’s assumed the character is in Vietnam, even though Webb doesn’t spell it out. Webb’s original second verse contains the following lines: I’d go home if they would let me / Put down this gun / And go to Galveston. Those lines give the song just the faintest hint of a protest-song vibe.

Glen Campbell proved quite the adept interpreter of Webb’s material on several occasions. But in the case of “Galveston,” Campbell only got wind of the song second-hand from the Hawaiian singer Don Ho, who recorded it first. Campbell liked what he heard, but thought of some changes he could make that might make the song a better fit.

Campbell’s Changes

As envisioned by Webb and first recorded by Ho, “Galveston” rolled along at a somber pace. But Campbell put his countrypolitan spin on it, complete with a pristine recording by session aces from the Los Angeles-based Wrecking Crew and lush strings deployed for maximum effect. For his part, Campbell gives a stellar vocal performance, one that rises to touching emotional peaks.

As for that second verse, Campbell removed the lyrics about the soldier wanting to come home. He replaced it with more lines about the soldier missing his home while still remaining dutiful: While I watch the cannons flashing / I clean my gun / And dream of Galveston. Webb later speculated the original lyrics might have skewed a bit too close to being a political statement for Campbell’s liking.

Webb also believes his song was somewhat apolitical to start, as he explained in an interview with Sound Observations in 2013 (as reported by Songfacts):

“If there was a statement, and obviously I was saying something, I prefer to say it wasn’t anti-war—that it was more about an individual getting involved in a war and realizing that he’d rather be somewhere else.”

What is the Meaning of “Galveston”?

Webb was often effective writing ornate, verbose lyrics. But with “Galveston,” it’s all about getting it done with minimal wording and letting the listeners tap into the emotions of the song. He also lucked into the fact that Galveston the city is a pretty musical name, which makes it a good foundation for such a melodic song.

Listen in the first verse to how effortlessly he introduces the two things the narrator is missing so badly: I still hear your sea winds blowin’ / I still see her dark eyes glowin’. Which brings us to another key element to the song: The fact he’s addressing the city in the song, not the girl, as if the city has powers to hear him across the miles the girl doesn’t possess.

In the final verse, the protagonist lets us know everything that’s at stake: I am so afraid of dying / Before I dry the tears she’s crying. Those simple lines hauntingly evoke the conundrum of every soldier called to duty and away from home and loved ones. They render the “Galveston” conjured by Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb a universal haven safe from the horrors of war.

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Photo by Jasper Dailey/ Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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