Bristol Beacon, 4th July 2015 – Arrangement by Ali Orbaum
Back in the 1960s the maintenance of telephone lines in the USA was usually the responsibility of the county administration, and the telegraph poles and wires were maintained by linemen. Songwriter Jimmy Webb (also famous for Galveston and MacArthur Park among others) was driving down a long road in the middle of nowhere when he saw a lineman up a pole, testing a line with a handset. He wondered who might be on the other end of the call, conjectured that it might be the worker’s girlfriend, and the song grew from there. Apparently the road in question was actually in Washita County in rural Oklahoma, but Webb thought that ‘Wichita’ would sing better.
At that time Webb was a songwriter rather than a recording artist, and Wichita Lineman was first recorded in 1968 by country singer Glenn Campbell on his album of the same name. Released as a single, it was a big hit in England as well as in the USA and Canada.
So here are a few performances which largely avoid that pitfall:
Sergio Mendès (already famous in Gurt Lush territory for his earlier hit Mas Que Nada) sidestepped the schmaltz in 1969 and went straight for high-class cheese. A couple of years later Kool and the Gang did it as a languid jazz instrumental, to which the tune lends itself well. Indie stars REM turned in a surprising and fairly restrained performance in 1994. An ageing Johnny Cash gave it some grit in 2003, and the accompanying video has some great images of linemen at work. This researcher’s left-field choice is by Clouds, a 1990s girl group from Sydney, Australia, who surely took it somewhere Jimmy Webb never dreamed of.
The only a capella choral version around seems to be Ali Orbaum’s arrangement for our friends the Gasworks Choir; it was their performance at a concert we shared with them in 2013 which inspired its addition to our repertoire.