Jimmy Webb – For the sake of the song
In a sense, playing Texas Stadium was a homecoming of sorts for Webb, who spent his formative years in Texas and Oklahoma before moving to Southern California when he was 17 (and then to New York another 17 years later). “I was raised in West Texas; my dad [a Baptist minister] went to seminary in Fort Worth, and pastored churches in places like Pampa and Amarillo. So I was kind of raised in Buddy Holly territory….I remember the first time I ever got picked up by a school bus was in Wellington, Texas [pop. 2.456].”
His birthplace was about 50 miles east of there, just across the state line in the Oklahoma town of Elk City [pop. 10.428]. I asked Webb if, growing up, he had felt any special kinship with a fellow Okie who was also one of the great American songwriters of the 20th Century — Woody Guthrie. Of course, the songwriting methods and approaches of Webb and Guthrie are a definitive case of apples vs. oranges.
“He was a much less contrived person than I am in a lot of ways,” Webb observes. “He was in the trenches; he was a trench-warfare kind of a guy. He was a real power for social change. I’ve written a lot of songs about politics, and I’ve written a lot of songs about ecological matters and all kinds of things that are socially conscientious, though they haven’t been my most famous songs. You know, people don’t necessarily like to hear about those things. That’s why, when Woody Guthrie and those guys were out organizing unions and kinda creating a code for all these causes, they seemed to create really good, ‘Well, I’ve gotta hammer, I’ll hammer in the morning, I’ll hammer in the evening’ — really jolly songs.
“Of course, what was going on wasn’t jolly at all. People were getting the shit kicked outta them. They were starving to death. In a lot of cases, their world was coming to an end. It was the Dust Bowl, people were moving out of my part of the world, never to return. So the world is crashing down around their shoulders, but the songs are like, ‘Hammer all the morning, ba doom ba doom’ — very jolly. And I think that’s what you have to do when you’re changing the world, is you have to have a jolly tune, you have to have something to march to. And that’s not necessarily my job. I’m more the guy who comes by after the battle and writes about the leftovers; what was accomplished, or what wasn’t accomplished.”
One thing that hasn’t been accomplished, amazingly enough, is getting Woody Guthrie in Oklahoma’s Hall of Fame. “Dale Robertson is in it, and James Garner is in it, and some of these big stars from Oklahoma. So, I talked to them one time, I said, ‘Hey, you guys, how come you don’t have Woody Guthrie in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame?’ That seems like a remarkable oversight. But you know, it’s one of these things: ‘Well, you know, he was a Communist.’ Oh, is that right? I didn’t know that. I thought he was a patriot and an American. OK, he was a Communist. So Woody Guthrie ain’t in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. So, you know, I don’t want to be in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, until they put in Woody Guthrie.”
There’s one other dearly departed Okie songwriter who meant a lot to Webb over the decades. “I was born in Elk City; 12 miles up the road was Erick, and Roger Miller was from Erick.” Though the two didn’t know each other as kids, they became good pals as their career paths continuously crossed in later years. “I remember when I was inducted into the Nashville songwriters Hall of Fame, Roger was there. And that’s really the last time I saw him, ” Webb recalls. (Miller died of throat cancer in October 1992.) “I walked up to him and I said, ‘Roger, goddamn you, I’ve been in New York for 15 years trying to get a musical on Broadway, and you come in there and take all the Tonys. Damn your ass!’ I told him. Because I loved Roger.
“And then about two years later, he was gone. And, if the things we value in this country are, like, Mark Twain, then we’ve got to love Roger Miller. But he was gone without a great deal of fanfare. I noticed, because I knew him. I had been with him at many a New Year’s party, and hanging out with Glen, and laughing at the crazy bastard, he was just so funny. He was one of the funniest guys that ever came down the pike. And all of a sudden he was gone, and man, it was small column three page six.
“And I tried for five or six months to find out what they did with him [where he was buried]. I mean, I called everybody I knew, and I said, where’d they take Roger? Where did they take him? I don’t know where he is. I don’t know whether anybody knows where he is!
“Because I just wanna go out there and see him. I don’t know whether they took him back to Oklahoma, whether they took him out to Erick, where my grandmother’s buried out there. But I could never find out what they did with him. It was kind of like kind of a hiccup after, in my mind, one of the most significant careers in the history of country. I mean, he was like Mark Twain.”
As it happens, the reason Webb never could track down the location of Miller’s grave is simple: There isn’t one. Nashville country music journalist/historian Robert K. Oermann tells us that Miller was cremated and his ashes scattered — though Oermann isn’t sure exactly where that scattering took place. So a certain degree of mystery remains. All that can be said for certain, it seems, is that, true to the title of one of Jimmy Webb’s most moving songs, Roger Miller is Asleep on the Wind.
Peter Blackstock, co-editor of No Depression, occasionally performs Jimmy Webb’s “Christiaan No” at open mikes and has sung “Wichita Lineman” at bars in both hemispheres.