I can’t think of very many songwriters whose material runs the gamut from rock-bottom awful to absolutely brilliant, but Jimmy Webb is one of them. His hit “MacArthur Park” is so legendarily bad that Dave Barry’s readers voted it the worst song ever recorded in a 1992 poll. (Of course, this was before Rebecca Black. And if you actually clicked on that link, you’re most welcome.)
But here’s the weird thing: If you keep leafing through Jimmy Webb’s catalogue, you start to come across good songs. Really good songs. Songs that have become standards and been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash to Art Garfunkel. He’s kind of like the mainstream music world’s Rich Mullins: voice too rough for himself to become a pop star, but has an amazing way with a lyric.
One of those songs is “If These Walls Could Speak.” It’s been recorded at least five times: by Glen Campbell, by Webb himself, by Amy Grant, by Nancy Griffith, and by Shawn Colvin. My personal favorite version is Amy Grant’s, recorded for her 1988 album Lead Me On. (Grant also collaborated on Webb’s excellent Christmas musical The Animals’ Christmas with Art Garfunkel.) I love this version because of her vocal and because of the sparsely lovely piano arrangement, which is closest to Webb’s own vision of the song. It makes the lyrics stand out all the more, which is a good thing, because they’re some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard.
This song is about lost love, but it’s also about lost family and a lost home. Details of the loss are left for the listener to fill in, but the verses provide scraps and bits of memory, like old photos in an album, telling us what the walls and halls and windowpanes saw. Interestingly, there’s a discrepancy between the somewhat rougher original first verse and a softened version sung by Grant and a couple other cover artists. Grant sings, “If these old walls could speak of things that they remember well, stories and faces dearly held,” where the original says, “things that they remember well, parties and people raising hell.” The latter makes a better rhyme, but one can understand the modification. Regardless, the verses convey a strong love, a love with deep roots that seemed as though it would never fade. And they’re written exceptionally well, maintaining the same pattern at the end of each stanza: Verse 1: “A couple in love living week to week, rooms full of laughter…,” Verse 2: “Children playing at hide and seek from floor to rafter…,” Verse 3: “Every dream that we came to seek or followed after.”
What happens next, we can imagine for ourselves, drawing from any number of real-life broken marriages. We can think about people who’ve succumbed to addiction, infidelity, all the tools of the trade for the Master of Lies. Then the pain, the bitterness, the trust once broken, never mended. But the abandoned walls have an unspoken message:
They would tell you that I’m sorry
For being cold and blind and weak
They would tell you that it’s only
That I have a stubborn streak
If these walls could speak
Just a few simple lines, yet they convey a lifetime of pain. Where, exactly, the children are is left unclear. Have they been taken away, leaving the speaker alone in the empty shell of a home? Or has the speaker been abandoned to raise the children alone? It’s open to interpretation.
The song doesn’t repeat itself in the second chorus but concludes with a fresh thought, revealing yet more layers of sadness:
They would tell you that I owe you
More than I could ever pay
Here’s someone who really loves you
Don’t ever go away
That’s what these walls would say
There is one more discrepancy here: As Webb sings it, it’s “Here’s someone who really needs you.” The modified version flows a little better, but the word “needs” creates more urgency and specificity. One thinks of the alcoholic, at once wounding and clinging to his wife, thus dragging the whole family down with him.
These lyrics feel intensely personal, but I can’t pinpoint anything in Webb’s own life that would line up precisely with the time the song was written, though he and his first wife did separate and divorce in the late 90s. Fascinatingly, Webb was raised the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, and in the 2000s, he spoke about returning to embrace the faith of his youth, describing himself as “a bit like the prodigal son.” The full interview with the Salvation Army magazine unfortunately seems to have been lost in cyberspace (though anyone is welcome to try unearthing it on the Wayback Machine), but this fragment is preserved on Wikipedia:
I couldn’t write a song without God. Sure, I could hack out hackneyed phrases and clichés, but to write anything meaningful I have to be in tune with God. He is the great source, my inspiration, the current that I have to connect to. Sadly I’ve not always used the gift He’s given me—the answered prayer—as best as I could or should have. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve done things I wish I hadn’t done.
Completely orthodox? Maybe not. But it’s a window into an interesting mind.
There’s a tragic irony in this particular version of the song, given that Grant would later herself go through a very public divorce. Moreover, it would be a divorce where the choice to leave was clearly on her side. But this only reinforces the painful universality of the lyric. It has the timeless quality of all songs that say something insightful and true about human nature. It stirs the most deeply buried longings of the heart, awakening an ache for lost things.