When Glen Campbell took Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” to the top of the charts in 1969, most of the country probably shared Melissa Etheridge’s reaction.

“I never even knew what he was singing about,” she said in 2003, when CMT named it No. 8 on the list of the 100 greatest songs in country music. “Was it a girl? Was it a place? But oh my God, did I miss Galveston.”

Etheridge could be forgiven if she heard it as a love song to whatever or whomever Galveston was. “Galveston, oh Galveston” opens the song, in addition to two of the three remaining stanzas. Webb sprinkles images — sea waves, sea winds, sea birds — to evoke the place, and the narrator is singing to Galveston: they’re “your” sea waves, sea winds, sea birds. Campbell’s sunny tenor, soaring strings and his own cheerfully galumphing bass guitar solo make it hard to register any emotion beyond loving remembrance.

But the song is not about Galveston. Nor, despite an allusion to the narrator watching flashing cannons and cleaning his gun, is it a subtle protest against the Vietnam War, a popular interpretation then and now. 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.

It’s not unusual for the same song to undergo an interpretive sea change, depending on the singer. But “Galveston” might be unique in how it’s evolved.

The vast majority of  listeners know the song only in Campbell’s version, and the lyrics Campbell sang are the lyrics Webb himself sang when he got around to recording it for the first time three years later, in 1972. But they aren’t the original lyrics. We know this because Don Ho sang “Galveston” in 1968, a year before Campbell’s version. 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 war, and for the conservative Campbell, Webb’s original lyric seemed to flirt with an anti-war sentiment, so Campbell changed the verse. There were other changes. Ho’s lugubrious baritone was replaced by Campbell’s open-hearted tenor, the sluggish pace became almost brisk, and the syrupy arrangement gave way to a sterling pop-country performance by the Wrecking Crew.

Perhaps inadvertently, Campbell made Galveston the star of “Galveston,” and the city reciprocated. In 1969, Galveston invited Webb to be Grand Marshal of its Shrimp Festival Parade. (Against his better judgment, he accepted, and got pelted with shrimp because of his long hair.)

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.

Glen Campbell (l) and Jimmy Webb in 2000 (Sandra Gillard)

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.

When Jimmy Webb released his own version of “Galveston,” 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. But when Campbell sang it for CMT’s awards show in 2003, he delivered the version that everyone knew and expected. Behind Campbell, producers projected images of picturesque waves far larger than Galveston’s.

There’s no denying that Campbell’s 1988 version and each of Webb’s 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, is what comes through in Campbell’s original.

These two very different approaches to “Galveston,” the celebratory and the melancholic, suggest a third way of hearing the song. 

The city of 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 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.

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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. But the slack economy resulted in less pressure to expand and tear down old buildings. 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 island city of today.

Glen Campbell’s 1969 version of “Galveston” shifts the focus from the scared and lovesick soldier that Webb intended as the subject to the soldier’s picturesque home. Campbell’s 1988 version, and Webb’s, evoke something else about the city.

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. A recent NASA study found that the sea level around the island is rising faster than nearly anywhere else on earth. Hurricanes are becoming more numerous and intense. Will Galveston 100 years from now bear any resemblance to Galveston today? Will there be a Galveston?

We can hear vulnerability — not only the soldier’s, but the city’s — in the more authentic versions of the song. But Galveston is more than a victim of its location. It’s the place that the soldier remembers fondly, the home of sea waves, sea winds, and sea birds.

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 hearing only Campbell’s hit or only the melancholy versions without remembering the other is an altogether different experience emotionally than remembering both. Together, they are richer and truer than either alone.