An appreciation of The Wichita Lineman and of Dylan Jones’ book about it
Anyone who has ever had creative work rejected should take great encouragement from a song that most industry ‘experts’ would have instantly thrown aside. It has just sixteen lines, two verses, no proper chorus, and by the songwriter’s own admission was rushed out in an afternoon and is unfinished. Some of the most respected people in the music business have hailed it as a great modern classic.
It is one of my favourite songs despite the fact I find the vast majority of Country Music too kitsch, and actively avoid ‘middle of the road’ or ‘easy listening’ Americana. Close friends will probably be surprised to find this song included in my most esteemed selection, but I’m in good company. Bob Dylan describes it as “the greatest song ever written”. Music journalist Stuart Maconie has designated it as “the greatest pop song ever composed”.
Few songs warrant a book solely about them. Dylan Jones has written such a volume: The Wichita Lineman, searching in the sun for the world’s greatest unfinished song. It’s an informative read.
Like Jones, I cannot remember when I first heard Wichita Lineman. It was undoubtedly part of the background rustle that permeated Sunday mornings in our industrial Lancashire homestead in the late 1960s. Somehow this song cut the cultural fences that fended off most tracks from mid-west stables. It’s unclear how it put down roots in my concrete and cobble prairie. Dylan Jones suggests its success is due to a combination of several laudable components. He may well be right. The most appropriate singer, the inspired orchestration, the blue-collar subject and the deeply and sincerely felt emotional truth that underpinned the poem at its heart, all played a part. Even its unfinished form was significant by enhancing the unresolved lyrical theme.
Initially I imagined the song in the wrong location and was somewhat puzzled by its technical content. The songwriter, Jimmy Webb, admits he is to blame for the latter confusion.
For a start, although the lyrics refer initially to sunshine, they also mention snow. In my ignorance, I presumed Wichita to be in one of the northern states such as Oregon, Montana or Minnesota. In fact, there are quite a few places called Wichita in the USA. Jimmy Webb was raised in Wichita Falls, Texas but he says the Wichita home of the eponymous lineman is the one in Kansas. He makes it quite clear that the inspiration for the song occurred on one of the apparently endless highways in the Oklahoma ‘pan handle’, which is a 60-mile-wide stretch of land that juts westwards to meet New Mexico between the southern edge of Kansas and the northern boundary of Texas. It doesn’t really matter about my incorrect imaginary location; I got the isolation and the acute lonesomeness alright.
The greatest puzzle in my mind, however, was just what kind of line was this ever-pining repairman dealing with? Was he a telephone guy – in which case why was he searching for another overload? Or was he a high-tension technician, in which case why was he still on the line? (I know there are metaphors involved here, but even so, it’s confusing.) Webb admits he initially didn’t recognise the entanglement he’d created. “I talk about an overload, which is something that happens to high tension wires, but I cast the main character as a telephone repair man, fixing the line. Some of the guys from the union have scalded me about that from time to time.”
The greatest joy in Dylan Jones’ book is the way in which he reveals that the imperfections are integral to the song’s success. Its lyric is too short. The song cries out for a third verse but one never comes and that adds to the theme of unrequited longing. The bloody-mindedness of the writer in not complying with convention either lyrically or musically sets the song apart from the crowd – exactly where its protagonist is. It refuses to resort to cliché. It is incredibly simple and hence gives rise to possible profundity – but it is a profundity that we listeners provide. The song leaves gaps for our own experience and imagination to fill.
Jones is also astute at explaining how the arrangement and – most importantly of all – Glen Campbell’s interpretation, create the atmosphere and secure the allegory to the telegraphic stave that connects so many of us.
I did not appreciate until I read this book just how consummate a guitarist Glen Campbell was, or the range of classic records that he contributed to as one of the legendary session players known as The Wrecking Crew. (The Wrecking Crew were so called because due to their proficiency they allegedly wrecked the careers of other session players.) Campbell played on Mrs Robinson, California Dreamin’, Strangers in the Night, I’m a Believer, Viva Las Vegas, You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling, and countless others.
Jimmy Webb’s story is unfurled in parallel with Campbell’s and hence they form a kind of Butch and Sundance on the wireless wagon trail of the vinyl west. In one sense Lineman is a kind of sequel to By the Time I Get to Phoenix, and is also tied by a common inspiration to McArthur Park, both of which Webb wrote. The latter is notorious for its enigmatic surreal lyric, but according to Webb every rainy-cake splattered line is true and was experienced by him in reality. That discovery was one of the many nuggets that Jones kicks up. Just here and there he wanders off into more general excursions that almost tested my allegiance, but I stayed with him and was ultimately rewarded by brutally honest flashes of his own biographical background, as well as the scores of insights he provides into the singer, songwriter and song.
So, is Wichita Lineman “the greatest song ever written” as Bob Dylan has suggested, or as Stuart Maconie proposes “the greatest pop song ever composed”? No, it is neither of those things; but it is a great song.
The greatest pop song is like a pristinely decorated plastic Christmas tree – something that generates a lot of warm feelings and provokes nostalgia blended with a degree of euphoria. But a pop song is also something that is blatantly superficial and intentionally generic. Wichita Lineman is more precise, more particular and more natural.
The greatest song ever written, on the other hand, can be likened to a great oak tree in the middle of a field. It is a song for all seasons and has a differing appeal at different times but is consistently strong in its presence, purpose, meaning and natural beauty. Wichita Lineman has those qualities but there are scores of songs that have them in greater quantity and better balance.
Wichita Lineman is not a plastic decoration, neither is it a great oak. It is more akin to a rough-hewed telegraph pole. It does not need a podium, because it is its own pedestal. It stands alone, but is linked to thousands of others who stand alone, and it is that shared isolation that makes it special. Wichita Lineman provides the voice that, in all weathers, connects us to the interminable longing of long-distance heartache. It doesn’t need a label. It is a number that those on the line know by heart.
YouTube The Wichita Lineman original with lyrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAxZotTGULE
YouTube The Wichita Lineman original with slightly over-helpful images: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxSarBcsKLU
YouTube The Wichita Lineman with a more mature Glen Campbell playing live and adding an originally unscripted concluding line: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjzTNWWO7U0
If you fancy thirty minutes more on this topic try the BBC Radio 4: Soul Music Wichita Lineman episode: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b013f96w
 D Jones, The Wichita Lineman, Faber & Faber, 2019, page 60
 Ibid. page 260
 Ibid. page 225