wichita lineman no. 6: sergio mendez & brazil ‘66, “wichita lineman” (1969)

As mentioned in Cassandra Wilson, this is another version of the song sung by a woman, whose name, alas, I cannot discover on Allmusic.com. She is the anonymous singer of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, who, in 1969, released their cover of the song on Ye-Me-Le. It was enough of a hit that it was rereleased as one of Twenty Easy Listening Classics. Ye-Me-Le is mostly covers of popular pop tunes of the time – it’s followed up by “Norwegian Wood”. This version feels a bit perfunctory, maybe with some historical reason: I have 11 other cover versions from 1969.

It’s quick: 2:47. There’s a spritely intro full of Latin percussion for ten seconds, then things slow down, for the verse, speeding up again after the chorus. What’s nice is that this start-stop dynamic is carried through the song: you can neatly divide it into three sections. Just before the third section starts, there are orchestral flourishes. The third section is followed by the glorious full-speed ending, with scat singing, probably improvised. This is the best part of the song – it could go on for another three minutes and I’d be quite happy. Probably this would have been a better song-as-a-song if they cut the first two choruses and verses and started with the orchestra at about 1:30.

The lyric here (sung in English) is quite honestly disposable. As mentioned previously, the position of the singer does get switched up in the first two lines (“He is a lineman for the county / And he rides the main roads”) but this isn’t followed up in the rest of the song. She goes back to the original “you” in “I can hear you through the wires”, and soon afterwards “I know I need a small vacation”. There doesn’t seem to be a connection made to the song’s switch to the third person later, which Cassandra Wilson makes. I don’t think this is particularly thought-out – it’s an easy cover version.

There’s undoubtedly something to be said about the cultural context of this version, but I don’t feel qualified to say anything about how Brazilian musicians covering “country” songs would have been received in the United States in the late 1960s. Were Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 seen as a novelty act? From the evidence of this song, I’d say they saw themselves as entertainers rather than artists, but it’s hard to tell.

Is this cover a novelty song? It’s certainly a jolly rendition of a sad song. I’m not sure that it’s being disrespectful to the song, however, so much as it’s using it as a base to play with. There’s a clear joy in how the song takes off when it leaves the choruses, which I think is the real worth of this rendition. Rather than a novelty, the cover might be being used as a Trojan horse to get that in the door.

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.

wichita lineman no. 4: johnny cash, “wichita lineman” (2002)

This is the version of the song that you find most often when you search for “wichita lineman” on my file-sharing service – though it’s worth noting that the KLF’s “Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard” does come up more often. Glen Campbell is in second place; after that, there’s no clear third place. This is a recent rendition: it’s off of 2003’s Unearthed, the box set of the late albums where they propped him up and made Mr. Cash sing mostly recent songs (“Hurt”, “Personal Jesus”, “I See a Darkness”) for the delight of the youth. That Cash was audibly old & wheezy helped sales along; that he died helped most of all.

This is of course cynical, but this is a rather perfunctory cover. “Wichita Lineman” didn’t make it onto any of the four discs that the box set mined. I don’t know that anyone would make the case that it’s as compelling as a song as the other work Cash was doing at the same time. But it’s Johnny Cash, you say. Of course it’s Johnny Cash, but it’s a song too, and I think it fails for that reason.

First, the instrumentation. This starts out with an acoustic guitar, with notes from a vibraphone strategically highlighting the dramatic parts. A piano comes in for the first chorus and stays around for the rest of the song. After the second chorus, dramatic guitar which doesn’t need to be there – this comes back towards the end as well. I don’t know why they did this &ndash it ruins the desolation that Cash’s voice has going. It’s too big & too country.

He clearly knows the song and sings it like he understands it (he can successfully parse “that stretch down South”, for example). But the quirks of the song (the vaguely wheedling tone of “I know I need a small vacation”) don’t work for him in the same way that he can make the quirks of the other songs he was covering at about this time work. Consider his tone in his cover of Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat”, for example, as he lists off the mystic objects in his jail cell – the weirdness there is more powerful than the fire-and-brimstone of the climax of that song. Does Johnny Cash need “a small vacation”? The irony veiled in the line – the speaker clearly wants more than a small vacation – isn’t lost on Cash, but Cash’s voice isn’t quite suited for the trickiness implied. When one is old & gnarled one should be a voice of capital-T Truth. And I don’t know that that’s what happening here.

Cash’s vocal doesn’t work for the song, not because it’s not desolate enough, but because desolation isn’t enough. This is not a song for old men.

wichita lineman no. 3: spotniks, “wichita lineman” (1974)

This is ostensibly from an album entitled Live in Berlin 1974 and it’s awful. Deeply awful.

What’s happening here: it’s instrumental and it goes on for four minutes and seventeen seconds. There is crowd applause at the beginning and the end. The organ is wrong: it sounds convincingly fake, although I know that in 1974 you couldn’t have had a MIDI organ (more on that presently). There’s electric jazz guitar over the top, starting off by pretending to be tasteful & Spanish and then giving in to the impulse to have a big electric Lynyrd Skynyrd-style rave-up, which happens about three minutes in. Live drumming, of course.

It’s maybe worth noting that the “Wichita Lineman” content gets mostly taken care of in the first minute and a half, at which point things start getting wobbly and proggish. It’s a false alarm, though: they go back and do another verse before, at the two-and-a-half minute mark, they go off and do their own thing with guitar solos.

Why would you do this? Who goes around thinking “What if we played ‘Wichita Lineman’ but made it more awesome?” Or maybe they just wanted a song to function as a framework in which to be more awesome and “Wichita Lineman” is something everybody knew – which matters, I suppose, if you’re trying to get a response out of a crowd.

wichita lineman no. 2: glen campbell, “wichita lineman” (1968)

Here is, as best I can reconstruct, how I came to hear Glen Campbell’s version of this song, which might have been the first version I came to hear of “Wichita Lineman”.

In the summer of 2001 I was living in Rome. There at the same time were some writers for a travel guide, with whom I became friends. They were living in an apartment rented from an American woman who lived in Rome; it was in Prati, north of the Vatican and near the river, on the top floor of the building. They threw parties; the owner had left her CD collection, which was mostly uninteresting, but had two things that I liked: Pulp’s This Is Hardcore – which isn’t worth going into now – and Isaac Hayes’s Black Moses. For whatever reason, I’d never sat down to listen to Isaac Hayes, despite having the perfunctory college student’s appreciation of Shaft & the music thereof. But we listened to Isaac Hayes while everyone was getting a little more drunk than wise. That’s all.

And then I left Rome and moved to New York, which seemed the obvious thing to do at the time. I don’t remember much of late 2001 or early 2002, where I think I was reconstructing a worldview. (I listened to This Is Hardcore a lot during this time.) By late 2002, my life had stabilized to a point where I started to self-analyze myself and my recent past; my mind returned to where I’d been that summer in Rome, and I remembered listening to Isaac Hayes. Wanting to hear him again, I downloaded a copy of not Black Moses but Hot Buttered Soul, which is a fine album indeed. The last track on that is a cover, gloriously extended to 18 minutes, of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. Like “Wichita Lineman”, it’s a song made famous by Glen Campbell, written by Jimmy Webb. (“One of the great young songwriters of today” declares Hayes, who then goes on reconstruct the life of Jimmy Webb in such a way to make me fervently wish that he’d done the same thing to “Wichita Lineman”; alas, as far as I know, he hasn’t.)

Soon afterwards, made curious, I downloaded Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, and “Galveston”. These remain the only Glen Campbell I’ve heard; all three of ’em are Jimmy Webb songs. I think I downloaded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” first, then “Wichita Lineman”, because the name was familiar from the KLF, then “Galveston”. What I thought: that these sounded like the arrangements of the early Scott Walker records, even if Glen Campbell wasn’t as interesting a singer as Scott Walker. But I liked the strings in the background.

Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” isn’t nearly as good as Isaac Hayes’s, but that’s not much of a surprise. “Galveston” is the weak leg of the three songs. I assume the name sounded familiar, or evocative at least (it’s something of a surprise that none of the titles for the KLF’s Chill Out, their ersatz psychogeography of the American south, include “Galveston”). There are other songs that Jimmy Webb wrote for Glen Campbell, but I didn’t bother with those. Or any of the rest of Glen Campbell – these are still the only songs by him that I’ve heard. Maybe the other songs didn’t have city names in them? or maybe I didn’t want to push a good thing too hard? I don’t know.

But the Glen Campbell “Wichita Lineman”: what to say about this? A thesis: this works because it’s a beautifully arrangement of a slightly off-putting song. It’s a weird song when anyone performs it, but the Campbell arrangement is so perfect that the weirdness goes largely unnoticed, except for a nagging feeling in the listener that something more is being talked about in the song.

Why does the narrator begin to refer to himself in the third person (“And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line”)? Why a “small” vacation? The obsessive note (“And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time”) being sounded while he’s still on the job. “I can hear you through the wire” – is this the Lineman hearing his lover through the telephone, or imagining the voice?

What’s interesting about this musically is how desolate this doesn’t sound: it’s lush, an odd counterpoint to the laconic lyrics. The triumphant galloping off at the end: why triumphant? especially when it sounds like he’s run out of words? It’s a brilliant use of constraint & counterpoint.

There’s something frightening, perhaps, in the song’s lack of syntax, and how Campbell sings it: “And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain” says a lyrics page on the web for one of the lines. This can be read any number of ways, and the voicing doesn’t make this clear. “That” and “stretch” are both ambiguous: looking at it, it seems clear that “that” is functioning as a modifier of “stretch”, which is a noun. If it snows, a stretch of wire south of where the Wichita Lineman is won’t stand the strain of the weight of the snow. Is this happening towards the winter? This sounds like a summer song (“searching in the sun”).

Happily, it seems like Glen Campbell doesn’t notice any of this. This is not, perhaps, a smart rendition, but that’s not to its discredit.

wichita lineman no. 1: justus köhncke, “wichita lineman” (1999)

This is probably as good a place to start this project as any. Justus Köhncke is a German house producer (from Köln, I think) who makes records for Kompakt. Here is what he looks like:

His records tend to be more vocal than not, and while not quite pop certainly edging in on it. He’s released a lot of cover versions – Barbara Morgenstern & Jürgen Paape on his first record for Kompakt, Carly Simon (in German) on his second, among others I’m sure I haven’t noticed. He’s a fine appropriator – “Shelter” takes a sample from the intro to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and runs with it as the basis of a galloping house track for six and a half minutes. It’s guaranteed to throw Stones fanatics into hysterics – though Cal Tjader’s vibraphone-tastic jazz rendition of the same (released on Descarga, 1971) doesn’t have the same effect.

The discogs page for Köhncke lists a record he did in 1999 before joining the Kompakt stable, Spiralen der Erinnerung (“spirals of memory”, says Google translations). It’s on iCi records, some German label that only put out two other releases (one of the two being a single of two of the tracks) – not the sort of thing that’s easy to track down outside of Germany, probably not that easy to track down inside of Germany. But the tracklisting! oh, the tracklisting! It’s all covers, mostly of old folk/rock songs – John Cale’s lovely “I Keep a Close Watch”, Neil Young’s “Old Man”, Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”, another Carly Simon song. And, of course, “Wichita Lineman”. 

Against all hope (if somewhat predictably) a filesharing program turned up a copy of this. I might as well admit right now that filesharing makes this project possible – I certainly wouldn’t go out and buy twenty CDs just because they had a copy of “Wichita Lineman” on them. I would probably buy a copy of this one, were it available on CD (it’s not) because it’s lovely. On seven of the eight songs, Köhncke is singing in English (the last track is by Hildegard Knef, a German singer I know nothing about). I like singers who don’t have English as a first language: they tend to stress words in ways that makes them them new through defamiliarization. “I can hear you through the whine” he says, but there’s a “d” sound at the end of the last word: “wind”? Can he hear us through the whine, or the (mispronounced) wind? I don’t know what the actual word in the song is. Either would make sense, probably.

The instrumentation on this is mostly an organ, very up front at certain points. The vocals are spoken, almost whispered, sometimes double-tracked. There’s faint wood-block percussion in the background, at about the same level as Justus’s voice. A guitar comes in about two-thirds of the way through – it sounds fake and somewhat perfunctory. And then something curious happens 33 seconds from the end, after the vocals are done: the organ leaves, and there’s a full band playing, with wood blocks, still distant, for good measure. It sounds like it might be a treated version (static added? or is this just my MP3?) of the Glen Campbell version, though I can’t quite tell.

wichita linemen

I have a number of versions of “Wichita Lineman”, the song written by Jimmy Webb & popularized by Glen Campbell. Here, as an exercise, I’m going to attempt to go through them all & say something about each one. Hopefully the process will teach me something about repetition and variation; I’m also interested in originality, and the idea of standards.

(Also, I need some content to play with on Drupal. That’s the most proximate reason. (The sharpminded may notice that this site is not actually running Drupal which is true – I didn’t care quite enough about Drupal to sort out its confusion and then I moved everything to Drupal including the first six entries or so which I actually wrote a while ago and then forgot about while I was busy doing other things.))

Why “Wichita Lineman”? It’s a nice song, first of all. It’s not a song I can claim to know anything much about – it came out & was popular well a decade before I was born. While I had heard of the song – most specifically in the context of the title of the KLF’s “Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard”, a track on Chill Out, an album I’ve played more often than just about any – I don’t think I’d actually heard the song, to my conscious knowledge anyway, until I downloaded Glen Campbell’s version a couple of years ago out of curiosity. It’s strange that I never would have heard it, but I don’t think that I had.

As of this writing, I’ve got somewhere over 50 versions, three-and-a-half hours worth. Most – but not all – of these are by artists I don’t know, or don’t know particularly well, if at all. This is somehow nice: there are an enormous range of interpretations, only fixed around a basic structure. They range in time over the past 37 years. Some are very nice; some are abysmal.

Alas, I am a very slow writer.

Precedents for this project (or a bibliography):

  • Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style
  • Michael Daddino’s “Send in the Clones”, which started off doing roughly the same thing for “Send in the Clowns”
  • Glenn McDonald’s The War Against Silence for its inspiring magnitude.
  • Allmusic’s review of Glen Campbell’s version