Sunday, November 17, 2013

Song #424 of 9999 - Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell

Song #424 of 9999

Title: Wichita Lineman
Artist: Glen Campbell
Year: 1968
Album: Wichita Lineman

Before I wrote my blog post on The Rolling Stones yesterday, I sat with "Wichita Lineman" for quite some time. I played it on the piano over and over again, marvelling at its harmonic structure and the way the tonality is kept hidden from the listener. I looked up the chords on the internet and found every version to be wrought with mistakes. (Who needs the bass note anyway?) [Editor's note: I just found an accurate version, which means there are probably a thousand accurate versions. Dammit!]

So let's get the other stuff out of the way. This is a rather unusual song, lyrically. It's been called "the first existential country song." Songwriter Jimmy Webb was inspired by a seemingly endless stretch of highway in Oklahoma lined with utility poles that stretched into the distance. As he drove down this road, he spotted a solitary worker on one of the poles and described the scene as "the picture of loneliness." His description of the sounds created by the wind rolling over the wires and of the electronic pulses that course through the lines is reflected in the strings and keyboards of the song's orchestration. It's admittedly a little dated but retains its cleverness.

But it's the harmonic progression that holds my attention. The song begins with an intro that establishes the key of F (F -  Gm7/F -  F  -  Gm7/C) before pretty much abandoning it forever. That last chord (Gm7/C) is a staple in 1970s-era pop music. It's a variant of Bb/C (in fact, we could probably write it as Bb6/C and be just as accurate), which is a IV chord over a V bass. It functions as a dominant and typically proceeds to the tonic (in this case, F). 

But this is where Webb steers us away. Instead of proceeding to F, he deceptively resolves to Bbmaj7, beginning the verse on the IV chord. Bb will eventually be the doorway through which we will pass to get to the song's real tonal center D. Check it out.
Gm7/C(ii7/V)           Bbmaj7(IV7)
I am a lineman for the county
Am7(iii7)            Gm7/C(ii7/V)
And I drive the main road
Dm(vi)           Am(iii)   G(II)     D(VI)
Searchin' in the sun for another overload

By the time we land on the word "overload," the key of D has been established even if we don't quite sense it yet. To me, that moment itself sounds like a plagal cadence (IV-I) with a Picardy 3rd, as if we were in D Minor (the relative minor of F)—do you also hear it? But what follows really establishes the key of D in my opinion and I will analyze it as such (with traditional chord inversions):
D(I)                      C(bVII)
I hear you singing in the wires
C(bVII)             G/B(IV6)
I can hear thru the whine
Gm/Bb(iv6)      D/A(I6/4)
And the Wichita Lineman
G/A(IV/V)       Bbmaj7(bVI7)
Is still on the line

Toward the end of this verse (chorus?), we really start to gravitate toward D. If there were any doubt, it is almost entirely erased by the D/A, functioning as a I 6/4. Then, we get that magical '70s chord (IV/V)—the same chord we saw in the intro that helped to establish the key of F (Bb/C)—this time in the key of D (G/A). And then once again, we are deceptively led to Bbmaj7! Only this time, it is clearly the sound of a (borrowed from the parallel minor) bVI in the key of D Major.

I know this is heavy and if you're not familiar with or comfortable with the chord symbols or terms, you probably turned your brain off three paragraphs ago. But if you're still with me, isn't this insanely brilliant! I love it and I think it points to one of many reasons why this song has established itself as a standard in the modern pop canon. 

Back tomorrow in 1978.

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis, thanks - do you think that, put simply, it's modulating between keys of F and D?