Wichita Lineman is not just another country and western song – it’s something special. That’s why so many people regard it as one of their favourite songs ever. But what is it about this song that elicits such strong emotions? Is there anything we can learn that will still apply today?
First, here’s a reminder if you need one …
Jimmy Webb wrote the song in 1967, riding high on two major hits: Up, Up And Away, for The Fifth Dimension and By The Time I Get To Phoenix, also for Glen Campbell. Wichita Lineman was written especially for Glen.
The song is unusual in several ways. Firstly, it consists of only two verses and has no bridge.
Secondly, it has no clear-cut key. While the sheet music shows the piece in F major, the F is never firmly established as the tonic. And within two lines of the verse it has transitioned to D major, which is, again, not really established. Bach would have been horrified!
The following sequence is, for me, the most beautiful melodic phrase in the piece and one that accomplishes the switch from F to D:
The vocal melody stays on C for the first two bars as there are two implied decents occurring below this: (1) from F to E to D, and (2) from A to G to F#, which I have shown in the extract from the score attached.
There is another nice descent from B to Bb to A later in the verse:
Another characteristic of this piece is the richness of the chords. This is not your typical three-chord country song. The piece is full of major sevenths and suspended fourths and these give the song the classy feel that you would normally associate with Burt Bacharach and the great American songbook generally.
Then there is the theme – a telecoms engineer at work. Who’d have thought that this was a likely basis for a classic song? But, of course, it is highly evocative and was one of the main reasons that Glen Campbell fell in love with it when Jimmy Webb first played it to him. And the theme is echoed in the signature morse code riff, played on a repeated D while the chords below alternate from Bb major to C major, with the promise of a resolving D major that never arrives.
When you analyse music like this, it makes it sound complicated and, of course, in some ways it is. But what really makes it a classy piece of work is that, for the listener, it sounds completely effortless. Well done, Jimmy Webb.