A popular view (part one)
One of life’s natural disputants, Malcolm secretly enjoys others agreeing with him. That is why he was warmed by two recent pieces (part 2 will follow).
Chris Campling’s radio review in the Times gave a couple of paragraphs of a wholly-excellent piece to BBC Radio 2’s Classic Singles programme:
… cop this: “Up close by the Kansas border in the panhandle of Oklahoma there’s a place where the terrain flattens out, it’s almost like you could take a level and put it on the highway and the bubble would sit there dead centre. And it goes on that way for about 50 miles, and in the summer, through the heat shimmer, the telephone poles gradually materialise out of the distance and they seem to to rush past you and I looked up and there was a man on top of one of them.”
Thus did Jimmy Webb describe the inspiration for Wichita Lineman in a new series of Classic Singles (Radio 2, Wednesdays, 11pm). He also revealed why the song has only two verses: it was never finished. Glen Campbell asked him for a song, he sent that one as a work in progress – “and the next time I heard it was on the record”.
What first got to Malcolm about the programme was a throw-away comment about Glen Campbell’s previous hit, Galveston. The second stanza fades up and down behind:
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
while the commentary goes like this:
Galveston was really more about someone caught up in the Vietnamese war … Galveston, that was the whole war, right there.
Not bad, eh?
Malcolm has a long-term itch to look closely at subtexts and contexts of song lyrics. This originated many, many years ago when he reacted to a Cole Porter lyric:
Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies.
On my Cayuse, let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountains rise.
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences,
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses,
And I can’t look at hovels and I can’t stand fences:
Don’t fence me in.
Apart from smart vocabulary and semi-rhymes, this seems totally inappropriate to urban, urbane Porter. Wikipedia makes just that point:
It was Porter’s least favorite song and does not have his usual signature. Originally written for an unproduced 20th Century Fox film musical, Adios Argentina, in 1934…
Ten years later, in 1944, Warner Bros. resurrected “Don’t Fence Me In” for Roy Rogers to sing in the movie, Hollywood Canteen. Many people heard the song for the first time when Kate Smith introduced it on her 1944-10-08 radio broadcast. “Don’t Fence Me In” was also recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in 1944. Crosby entered the studio on July 25,1944, without having seen or heard the song. Within 30 minutes he and the Andrews Sisters had made the recording, which later sold over a million copies and topped the Billboard charts for 8 weeks in 1944-45.
Put that alongside the other popular hits: say, Crosby in 1944 doing Bruce Jenkins:
Oh, I’m packing my grip
And I’m leaving today
‘Cause I’m taking a trip
I’m going to settle down and never more roam
And make the San Fernando Valley my home.
The question is latent: why in 1944-5 did these achieve such resonance? The answer, for anyone not smart enough to be ahead of Malcolm, is the date. It is safe to assume that the GIs yomping across northern Europe, or surviving the suicide of Pacific island hopping, formed one common resolution: not to return to industrial jobs in grim northern cities or to labouring on country farms. They had seen the bright lights and big cities and knew what they wanted, and where they were headed. That also is the significance of Bobby Troup’s iconic (Get Your kicks on) Route 66 in 1946:
Now you go through St. Louis; Joplin, Missouri;
Oklahoma City looks mighty pretty.
You’ll see Amarillo; Gallup, New Mexico;
Flagstaff, Arizona —don’t forget Winona—;
Kingman; Barstow; San Bernadino.
Won’t you get hip to this kindly tip
When you make that California trip?
Get your kicks on Route Sixty-six.
With free publicity like that, it’s not surprising how fast the Los Angeles region expanded.
In the wider context, someone, somewhere needs to do a deep appreciation of how catastrophic events (the Second World War, Korea, Kennedy in Dallas, Vietnam, 9.11) impact on the lives, loves and culture of the (allegedly always) “apolitical” upcoming generation. It simply ain’t like that, y’know: these things leave scars.
There are all kinds of significances in popular culture. Malcolm’s six decades have given him one thing: perspective. We need to rescue this stuff from the wordy, woolly, woozy sociologists, and re-assert some sense of social history.