wichita lineman no. 5: cassandra wilson, “wichita lineman” (2002)

Cassandra Wilson’s version of the song (from 2002, like Johnny Cash’s) stands out. First of all, she’s a woman – this is, predominantly, a song that male singers cover. Out of the 63 versions I presently have, there are all of five versions where there’s a woman singing the song. (Those figures aren’t counting background vocals & choirs.) Three of those five stick with the song’s original lyrics. The other two (Wilson’s and that of Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66) switch up the pronouns for the first line to make it more appropriate for a woman to sing. “He is a lineman for the county” the singer of Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 begins the song. But she drops this gender flippery after the first line and goes back to a first-person recitation of the travails of the Wichita Lineman (who, as normal, refers to himself in the third person in the chorus). That cover (of which more anon) is over in a breezy 2:47; the audience probably doesn’t notice that anything has happened, or stop to think about it.

Not so with Cassandra Wilson’s “Wichita Lineman”. She slows the song down tremendously to 5:48 – not the longest recitation that I have, but close to it. Her vocals don’t start for half a minute into the song, and immediately it’s clear that she’s attempting to make this her song: “My man’s a lineman for the county”. This carries through to the chorus: “I hear him singing through the wires / I can hear him through the whine / But my Wichita Lineman is still on the line.” Wilson’s reinterpretation is more radical than simply changing the voice of the song: she’s also changed the auditor of the song. In the original, it’s unclear who’s being sung to until you pops up in “I need you more than want you”; until then, however, the song could effectively be sung to no one; the lineman is pointedly lonely. Wilson excises the you: he’s become a he. She’s not singing the song to him.

The speaker isn’t pretending to be the kineman; she’s his worrisome lover. Wilson tidies some bits up: “I know he needs a short vacation” rather than a “small vacation”. One bit sounds off: “And if it snows, that stretch down south will never stand the strain”. This is the fretful thinking of the Wichita Lineman: why would his lover particularly care about this? She wouldn’t. It works with the original wording because it’s a metaphor for the relationship’s strain coming from the workman’s head.

Here it’s more clearly that particular metaphor – this is underscored by her transformation of “And I need you more than want you” to “I know I need him more than want him”: the speaker is considering the value of holding on to a long-distance relationship, emphasized by the but in the next line: “But my Wichita lineman” is still on the line”. This is a worry that doesn’t seem obvious in the original version of the song, except maybe as a hazy auditor, who might possibly hear the song from a distance. What the lineman’s lover might be thinking doesn’t come into the equation. It’s hard to even imagine the lineman, laconic as he is, imagining his lover’s thoughts.

Which brings us to the one part of the song that might not work in this reborn version: it’s laconicism. You can’t quite take that out of the song and still have it work: part of what makes the song interesting is its pointed lack of words. About half way through the song it runs out of words & has to start repeating them. The listener presumes that this is because the lineman himself is a man of few words. Wilson can’t quite get away from this: while she’s happy to change the individual lines, she doesn’t have the audacity to add more verses. However, she does want to draw out the song – this, by the way is done very nicely, and though I’ve said nothing about the instrumentation, rest assured that it’s very tasteful. So after about three minutes, she has to start repeating herself. And this, I think, is a betrayal of the character she’s created in the Lineman’s Lover: while the lineman lacks words, does it follow that his lover does as well?

It’s a fine rendition, but it’s reached an impasse: there’s only so far that you can take this song.

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