Classic Songs – Wichita Lineman

One of the great things about playing ‘covers’ is that you get the pick of each artist’s greatest work. For every Beatles or Richard Rodgers who had lots of great songs there are many bands/writers who just come up with one or two great songs which go on to be hits. In some cases, they’re not big hits at the time but go into history as great examples of the art. ‘Song for the Siren’ by Tim Buckley is a favourite of mine in that category. The songwriter Jimmy Webb sits between these extremes, coming up with at least a handful of great hit songs – Wichita Lineman,Galveston and By the Time I Get to Phoenix (Glen Campbell), Up, Up and Away (The 5th Dimension), Do What You Gotta Do (Nina Simone and others) and MacArthur Park (actor Richard Harris, and later, Donna Summer).

Jimmy Webb hit the big time in the 60’s and had his first songwriting hit ‘Up, Up and Away’ when he was just 21. From the start there was some originality and ‘quirkiness’ to the lyrics of his songs, while the music stayed more mainstream. I vividly remember a friend recalling a song that he and his college friends had fallen about laughing to, he recalled the line ‘someone left the cake out in the rain’, saying that was a main line in the song and I failed to understand how that could be, it seemed absurd. The song was, of course, MacArthur Park. I found actor Richard Harris’s single of the song in a jumble sale and listened with interest to the song which turned out to be quite an epic, a stirring orchestral workout bookended by the actual song, as a whole a very effective piece. And, in context, it sounded pretty good, but the analogy between a failed love and a cake left out in the rain will always be, well, ‘weird’! Another of his songs, recorded by Glen Campbell, was Where’s The Playground Suzie suffered similar issues with the lyrics.

Where it all came together, without flaw, is Wichita Lineman, with its classic, haunting melody and original lyrics. The title, referring to an electricity supply worker in the Mid-West is unusual, and the lyrics are based on that unusual premise but are not too eccentric. Two threads run through the song – one being the day to day duties of a lineman and the other being brief references to an unknown love. The two verses in the song each have one line of reference to this love and in each case the line is dropped in without preamble or conclusion, and this is the winning trick of the song, being strikingly moving. The first verse goes thus:

I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singing in the wire, I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

When we first hear the line ‘I hear you singing in the wire, I can hear you through the wine’, it’s not really clear that a person is being referred to, the song references ‘wire’ and ‘whine’ and it could be that the reference to the wind, understandable in that the song is set in the Great Plains where wind is a frequent companion as well as hazard.

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My simple vocal/guitar version of this classic song.

The second verse continues the workaday theme, detailing the protagonist’s job concerns until, almost from nowhere, is the line ‘and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time’…

I know I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

…I still recall the shiver and goosebumps when this first sunk in although I remember no details of where or when. It is the juxtaposition of this line against the worldly detail which produces this effect. A song starting with ‘I need you more than want you and I want you for all time’ could work, but sounds like just another love song. Wichita instead encapsulates in in a gritty realism and so gets the effect. When thinking of other songs which use this effect it’s hard to identify any that do it so distinctly. The Smiths’ ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ is similar in the change of mood when the titular line arrives in the song, but it’s in the context of being a passenger in the loved one’s car in the rest of the song. So far I’ve drawn a blank – if you come up with anything, please post below in ‘comments’…

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