The Electrical Worker online
December 2014

Remember This Classic?
A Conversation with 'Wichita Lineman' Songwriter
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The songs of legendary songwriter, singer and composer Jimmy Webb, whose first commercial recording was performed by the Supremes in 1965, evoke everyday people and universal themes.

In "Galveston," a soldier in Vietnam cleans his gun wondering if he will live to come home. In "The Highwayman," a construction worker drowns in cement.

But none of Webb's songs resonate more powerfully with workers, especially IBEW members, than "Wichita Lineman," recorded in October 1968.

Rolling Stone lists the song, originally sung by Glen Campbell and covered by artists as diverse as Johnny Cash and REM at No. 192 on the magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."

In a 1997 article in the Dallas Observer, Webb says Glen Campbell had called him in 1968 and asked for another hit to follow Webb's blockbuster "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

Webb had just returned to California from a trip to visit his family in Oklahoma. On a drive through the state's panhandle near the Kansas border, he passed a seemingly endless line of telephone poles in the "shimmering mirage."

"I was drivin' along there, just blinkin' and tryin' to stay awake, and all of a sudden there was somebody on top of one of those telephone poles — out of thousands of telephone poles, there's one that has a guy on it, and he had one of those little telephones hooked into the wires," Webb said.

Webb says he didn't know whether the lineman was "talkin' or listenin' or doin' something else with this telephone." But the seeming loneliness of the man on the pole fused with Webb's own angst, leading to the now indelible line, "And I need you more than want you. And I want you for all time."

Wichita Lineman hit No. 3 on the U.S. pop music charts and spent 15 weeks in the top 100.

"Jimmy Webb's song hit the nail on the head about being away from my family working as a lineman," says Tulsa, Okla., Local 1002 member David Crary, a lineman and musician who was quoted at length and sang the song on the BBC's "Soul Music" radio show three years ago.

Webb, the son of an Oklahoma Baptist preacher, and Campbell were also interviewed on that show, which features versions of the song by Johnny Cash and British reggae artist Dennis Brown.

Crary, a former Local 1002 assistant business manager, recalls the first time he heard "Wichita Lineman" in '72 or '73. The youngest of three brothers, Crary was sitting on a sleeping bag in the back of a station wagon during a family vacation when the song came on the radio.

"I thought being a lineman has to be a cool job if you hear a guy singing about it on the radio," says the father of six, who worked as a nonunion tree trimmer and underground utility worker before traveling to California to take a job as an IBEW-represented groundsman in 1996.

Crary has recorded his own song about linemen, which won applause when it was played for members attending a recent Seventh District progress meeting.

"The song reminds me that the No. 1 reason I am working is for the folks at home and they deserve for me to work safely and professionally," says Crary.

Today, Glen Campbell, 78, is suffering from Alzheimer's. Jimmy Webb, 68, who has produced music for Broadway, film and dozens of artists and a book on songwriting, is still performing.

While the song mixes the work of a telephone lineman talking on a phone with that of utility lineman "searching for overloads," the tune nevertheless resonates with everyone who climbs poles for a living, says IBEW Utility Department International Representative Don Hartley, a Richmond, Va., Local 50 lineman.

"It's the song for all linemen. How many jobs have their own song?"

David Crary's song about a tramp lineman, "The Ballad of Jason Jordan," is available on his CD, "Outlaw Side," available by writing to David at 850141 S. 3500 Road, Stroud, Okla., 74079. All proceeds from donations or sales of the CDs will be contributed to the Senior Citizens Center of Davenport, Okla.



'I hear you singin'
in the wire,
I can hear you through
the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.'


Tulsa, Okla., Lineman David Crary says 'Wichita Lineman' reminds him to work safely.

The IBEW's Interview with Jimmy Webb

EW: You have said that no one should assume that one's job has anything to do with how deeply they understand or feel about their surroundings and life. Wichita Lineman exhibits that respect for average workers. Where did that respect come from?

JW: I came from a middle-class home. My father served in the Marines in the South Pacific during WWII before he became a Baptist minister. We worked on my grandfather's farm in Oklahoma. We picked cotton and threw hay up on a trailer. I was plowing wheat the day I heard Glen Campbell's recording of "Turn Around Look at Me" and found a sound I could identify with, an American life and a blue-collar voice.

Later, my friends included singer-songwriters like Warren Zevon and Harry Nilsson, guys who had pretty rough and interesting childhoods and came from real-life situations, not mansions and privileged educations.

Everyone should respect average workers. We shouldn't turn into a country where we only get excited about celebrity and wealth.

EW: Linemen like Tulsa, Okla., member David Crary, interviewed on BBC, say Wichita Lineman speaks profoundly to the loneliness of working away from their homes and families. The song has become an anthem for a profession. How do you feel about that?

JW: This ratifies my instincts about what was the right thing to write. I was inspired when I wrote the song. I was getting help. I felt like I was being told what to do. So, it's very meaningful to know that the guys feel good about the song. I feel honored when linemen say they like my song. That's all I could hope for as a writer. A while back, a guy came up to me after a concert. He said his father was a lineman who had just passed on. Before he died, he said the last thing he wanted was for someone to play Wichita Lineman for him. I wish he had called me. I would have been there.

Being appreciated by folks in the electrical trade is similar to how I felt when a Vietnam Navy vet came up after one of my concerts and thanked me for writing Galveston. It's always a really emotional moment when I hear from one of the warriors.

He said he was stationed on the Wichita, a replenishment oiler. One day the oiler approached the light cruiser [CLG-3 Galveston] and the crews on both ships blasted out their respective songs [Wichita Lineman and Galveston]. I got chills up my back when he told me that. You never really know what effect your songs are having. Those songs were pieces of home coming together [during the Vietnam War].

I always wanted to be a songwriter, but I never dreamed about serving a higher purpose and helping others get through difficult situations.

EW: What was it like climbing the pole of the music profession to success?

JW: After a long struggle, I was working for $100 a week for the already-famous musician Johnny Rivers writing music. I tried to always work close to the studio. I remember one morning Rod McKuen [the poet, composer] came into the studio and wanted me to play the piano. We worked until 1 or 2 in the morning and recorded 52 songs. I got a dollar for each. After I was done, I swept out the studio and put everything where it belonged and locked up.

EW: In the Highwayman, you talk about a construction worker who drowns in cement. Where did that image come from?

JW: I was told by someone that 13 workers fell into cement while building the Hoover Dam. They were never recovered and are part of the dam. On my original acrylic disc of The Highwaymen, I had a special sleeve with a huge shot of Hoover Dam. It was my way of paying tribute to the guys who fell in. Everything has a human component and an emotional component. I don't know why, but I like songs like Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" [about a freighter carrying iron ore that sank on the Great Lakes]. I am entranced by human beings at their best. We already see plenty of stories about human beings at their worst.

EW: As a vice president of the American Society of Composers, Authors, Publishers (ASCAP), you have been outspoken about the piracy of songs and writings. Your concerns are similar to those expressed by IBEW and our manufacturing partners about unfair competition from counterfeit electrical devices like circuit breakers. What should be done?

JW: A patent is the same as a copyright. The guy who worked to design his music is the same as a guy who designs a pump. If somebody else is getting paid, I want to get paid. If Google is getting paid for music being distributed on illegal sites, I want a seat at the table. They are an industry that has a very cavalier attitude toward 'what belongs to you' and 'what belongs to me.' Business and money should not be allowed to change the fundamentals of democracy. If a man gives an honest day's work, he should be paid for it.

EW: Thanks for taking the time to talk.

JW: It's my pleasure and my honor.


Webb wrote 'Galveston' and 'The Highwayman' as well as 'Wichita Lineman.'