Red Dirt Oklahoma Roots of “Wichita Lineman”

washita county oklahoma

As I lay in my Oklahoma bed under a blood red moon, my mind wanders across the Southern Plains. Red buds bleed their blossoms under the cover of a windless night, crisp with early spring chill.  It is one of those few times when the fields are silent and the vastness of this place can be felt.

I hear you singin’ in the wire,
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

An old friend from Toronto was 3 hours north in Wichita, Kansas this week and a joke about the Glen Campbell song was inevitable. Long after the brief conversation ended, I laid awake filling the silence with every version of “Wichita Lineman” I could find.

bloodmoon

Blood Moon – Lunar eclipse April 15, 2014 3am CDT

A quick search lead me to Jimmy Webb, the songwriter for Wichita Lineman. Turns out, he’s from just down the road in Elk City and the song was conceived out of a lonely drive through Washita county in western Oklahoma. “Washita” was changed to “Wichita” by Campbell because he said it sang better.*

On Tuesday I decided to take a ride out to Washita County. My obsession had survived the night, catching the lunar eclipse and meager sleep. I needed to see this place.  I took my camera and shot photos of telephone poles lining wheat fields and grazing cattle, calves in tow. I sat on a narrow gravel road and shut down the engine. Silence but for the wind. Dust from another gravel road a mile away rose like mist.washita county oklahoma

Back in the sixties, telephone linemen were employees of the county. Webb noticed a lineman on a pole in this remote area while driving through and mused on what might be going through his mind. It seems he blended it with his own longing for an unrequited love. The result was one of the top songs of all time.

The winds are almost always blowing here and the “whine” of the lines is as easy for me to imagine as it was for Webb. The line connections are tenuous, running from pole to pole on fragile glass insulators. The distance between the lineman and his love, like snow, strains the line to the one he loves. He hears her whisper beneath the whine to dispel his loneliness in this empty place. I can feel his passion in every word and the landscape in his music.

And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

Before I came here, I did imagine driving down a Kansas or Oklahoma dirt road lined with telephone poles appearing on the horizon as fast as they collected in my rear view mirror. I have the sketches in an old sketchbook. It never occurred to me I would actually see it, feel it. And the peace is fleeting. A few weeks ago, the drought in western Oklahoma filled the sky at sunset with the ominous beauty of a dust cloud that shrouded the sun in a dark pink haze. It is a constant reminder of the harshness of the Southern Plains and why they are still a lonely place nearly 40 years after the song was written.

washita county oklahoma
There are some wonderful interpretations of Webb and Campbell’s song and, if you enjoy the song or just wanted to hear it, here are three versions (2 links and one embedded video); one by Webb himself with Billy Joel, one instrumental by Greg Booth a Dobro and pedal steel guitarist that I have replayed at least a dozen times, and, of course, the classic by Campbell below. Each one carries the emotion that seems to me to be as much about the Oklahoma landscape as the love the lineman sends down the line.

*source – Wikipedia and an article in the Dallas Observer

Comments

  1. Now you’ve done it … it’s stuck in my head “for all time” :-)
    Great blog Michelle

    Alan

  2. There is poetry in those words–beautiful. I also find hydro lines strangely evocative all by themselves, like railroads & trains, they span boundaries.

  3. Your photos are soulful. They look like scenes from a Coen brothers film. Love the colours. Art works from these wonderful images? And the song, yes, thanks for the info. It transports me back to those days when I was young… ;)

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks Arti. I think I would enjoy being a location scout for movies!
      As for paintings? Maybe. Maybe abstraction!

  4. i’ve been trying to think of a thoughtful/insightful comment to post, but all i can think of is, that is a lot of space in those photos and it makes me miss the one of 2 things i miss from alberta. how open everything is. the other…dinos :p

    • Michelle says:

      Some people can handle the open space, some can’t. Turns out, I like it. Turns out, the only dino I found is eating the stick family n the back of my Jeep… ;-)

  5. I’ve been going through my blogroll from over two years ago…yes it’s that long since I visited my blogs…and one by one I clicked on the blogs I had listed and so many, like mine were unattended.
    Then I came to yours and to one of my favourite songs – and favourite lines “And I need you more than want you, And I want you for all time”
    It’s so good to see that you are still creating – after so many empty houses, it was good to find one with the fire still burning.

    Thanks for the warmth

    Love

    Henry (soulMerlin)

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Henry – I wondered where you had gotten to. Is it funny that I paint a lot of empty houses? Glad to see you – you are welcome any time. Plans are to keep this fire burning for a long time yet. Thanks for stopping by.

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