By Bobby Moore. Top photo by Jerold Jackson. Right photo by Lane Pearman.
Galveston offers the perfect balance of down-home Texas charm and coastal resort escapism. Both qualities have long served as musical inspiration for both the city’s burgeoning nightlife and touring musicians. This different side of Texas has appealed to a range of country singers over the years, most notably when Glen Campbell made the Jimmy Webb composition “Galveston” a genre-defining hit. Celebration of place, and the mourning of historic disasters, brought the story of Galveston to other musical genres, as well.
Here are some of the high points of Galveston’s recurring role in popular music’s celebration of Texas towns and sprawling coasts.
GLEN CAMPBELL SINGS THE LOCAL THEME SONG
When Glen Campbell passed away Aug. 8, “Galveston” was among the classic hits most often referenced by the press and social media users. The song, written by Jimmy Webb, helped define Campbell’s incredible run of late ’60s success. To the people of Galveston, the song’s glamorizing of their seaside surroundings remains a point of pride.
There’s a flaw in Campbell’s pop-country interpretation of Webb’s lyrics, however. Campbell’s smooth delivery overshadows the song’s antiwar message, as captured by an earlier version recorded by Don Ho. The lead character cleans his gun and hears cannons firing in the distance because he’s serving in Vietnam. Amid this chaos, he remembers his first love back in Galveston. In this context, Galveston becomes a typical American town affected by the draft.
THE YODELING RANGER’S FASCINATION WITH GALVESTON’S SHORES
Long before Kenny Chesney became enchanted by beachfront living, early country star Hank Snow glamorized the sea and the sand by namedropping Galveston in multiple songs. In 1942, Snow sang “The Galveston Rose.” It uses the backdrop of a south Texas town “where the tropical sea breezes blow” to tell a classic story of lost love and an untimely death. A follow-up song, titled “Answer to the Galveston Rose,” was recorded that same year.
The Canadian-born singer often glamorized travel and trains, much like his idol Jimmie Rodgers. Perhaps this mindset is what attracted him to the sprawling beaches of Galveston. It’s worth mentioning as well that Snow helped popularize the song “I’ve Been Everywhere” with his 1962 version. This paved the way for Brian Burns’ contemporary “I’ve Been Everywhere (in Texas),” which name-drops Galveston.
COUNTRY MUSIC’S SUSTAINED FASCINATION WITH GALVESTON
For the sake of seaside imagery or an easy rhyme, country songwriters have revisited Galveston frequently over the years.
Some songs celebrate place. Current country star Dierks Bentley, for example, celebrated “summer down in Galveston” in 2003’s “I Can Only Think of One.” Tracy Byrd further explored the region’s mix of Southwestern charm and beach bum escapism with “Saltwater Cowboy.” Likewise, John Michael Montgomery viewed working for a shrimp boat captain in Galveston Bay as a respite from life’s problems in “That Changes Everything.”
In other instances, Galveston just fit a song phonetically. The great singing cowboy Gene Autry helped start the trend, singing of the “Gallavantin’ Galveston Gal” for the sake of tongue-tying phonetics. More recently, George Strait’s famous hit “All My Exes Live in Texas” mentions “Allison in Galveston.”
“IT WAS DOWN AT THE BALINESE”
The Balinese Room once served as coastal Texas’ after-hours entertainment nerve center. Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack friends performed and caroused there in their primes. More fantastically, a bartender there allegedly invented the margarita for singer Peggy Lee. Throw in a history of illegal gambling, and the club maintains a storied and seedy history. Built on a pier, the structure was destroyed in 2009 by Hurricane Ike, ending the venue’s earlyaughts rebirth.
Fortunately, ZZ Top’s 1975 song “Balinese,” from the album Fandango!, still alerts new listeners to the club’s renown. Although they’re best known as a legendary rock band, ZZ Top honors its roots in Texas music and culture in such a way that they’ve long been among their home state’s most visible and vocal ambassadors.
SPRINGSTEEN SINGS OF A DIFFERENT COAST
Like ZZ Top, Bruce Springsteen is more than just a still-relevant classic rocker. The Boss’ longstanding interest in rock’s roots has made him an unsung tastemaker for today’s Americana artists. And who better celebrates the role of place, be it the coasts of New Jersey or Texas, in song?
Springsteen’s “Galveston Bay,” from 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, deals with racial tensions raised after Vietnamese fishermen came to town because elements of the coast reminded them of home. Two characters who’d fought in the war, Le Bin Son and Billy Sutter, are dragged into this drama, forcing them both to make split-second, life-altering decisions. It’s an overlooked gem among Springsteen’s best story-songs, focusing on the Vietnam War’s sociopolitical fallout through a local lens.
FOLK SINGERS PRESERVE THE TALE OF THE 1900 HURRICANE
Another example of a song that deals with an unpleasant moment in local history is “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm.” It’s about the 1900 hurricane that decimated the area and killed thousands. The song is believed to have been written as an African American spiritual, in the same vein as the original 1934 recording by a regional preacher called “Sin-Killer” Griffin.
In the 1950s, as folklorists began collecting and recording songs from communities and their churches, “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm” found a broader audience. Such folk singers as Eric Von Schmidt, Tom Rush and the Chad Mitchell Trio recorded their own versions, keeping an old tradition alive and informing listeners of one of the most horrific natural disasters in American history.
The song has popped up in roots-minded artists’ repertoires since the folk revival ended, with versions recorded by the likes of Nanci Griffith, Tony Rice and James Taylor.
OTHER GENRES HONOR GALVESTON
Galveston’s place in the American songbook extends well beyond rock, folk and country history. For example, it’s the birthplace of legendary R&B and jazz vocalist Esther Phillips, although the time she spent in Los Angeles after her parents divorced positioned her to be discovered by Johnny Otis. Even Texas rapper Z-Ro boasts of a Galveston beach house on 2001 track “Gripping Grain.” For any singer or songwriter, time spent in Galveston may just impact future material in a positive way, just as it influenced the songs of a wide range of artists.