Art Begets Art: When Books Inspire Songs

By Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department

“To me, art begets art,” wrote Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue. “Painting feeds the eye just as poetry feeds the ear, which is to say that both feed the soul.” [1] If you’ve choreographed an impromptu dance routine while listening to a favorite song, for example, or illustrated a beloved poem in watercolor, then you’ll know what she meant.

Kate Bush

Sometimes those creative links span decades and genres. Who could have guessed that an “art pop” song based on the plot of a gothic tragi-romance would sweep the music charts in 13 countries and both hemispheres? But that’s exactly what happened when teenaged English artist Kate Bush released her first single, “Wuthering Heights,” in 1978. [2] That song – and its gloriously, theatrically, beautifully weird music video – has been running through my head for weeks, so I decided to find some more examples of popular music based on literature.

Countless acts, from Radiohead to Dead Kennedys to Stevie Wonder, have found inspiration in George Orwell’s 1984. David Bowie even aspired to produce a musical based on the dystopian novel. Orwell’s widow denied Bowie the rights, but some of the songs ended up on his Diamond Dogs album (“1984,” “Big Brother,” “We Are the Dead”). [3, 4, 5]

Still from “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” by Leonard Nimoy

Musicians mine Middle Earth – the setting for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, among other stories – for ideas, as well. Led Zeppelin indulged their Hobbital tendencies in such classics as “Ramble On,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” and “The Battle of Evermore.” Rush, Genesis, and Nickel Creek are some other acts who’ve referenced Bilbo et al. Comedy nerdcore duo Lords of the Rhymes exists solely to rap about Sauron and such. The fantasy epics are a favorite of metalheads, too: Blind Guardian, Summoning, Battlelore, Isengard, and Rivendell lead the way in the “Tolkien metal” genre. (Yes, that’s a thing.) [6, 7, 8, 9] But may we never forget the gold standard when it comes to Tolkien-related songs: Leonard Nimoy’sThe Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” (Trust me: that video is a lot to take in, but you have to watch it.)

Many of the literary songs I’ve come across are much more subtle about their inspirations. Some of them quite surprised me, in fact. Listen to a few tracks from this list and see if you can figure out the connections for yourself. Then, check the links at the end of this post to read more about their bookish origins. And if you’re interested in books that were inspired by famous songs, check out this blog post.

  • Who knew ABBA were such fans of post-apocalyptic horror?

    ABBA, “The Piper” (The Stand by Steven King)

  • Alt-J, “Breezeblocks” (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak)
  • The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert)
  • Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kwali), “Thieves in the Night” (The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison)
  • Kate Bush, “Flower of the Mountain” (Ulysses by James Joyce)
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand” (Paradise Lost by John Milton)
  • Chance the Rapper, “Same Drugs” (Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)
  • Devo, “Whip It” (Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon)
  • Meat Loaf duets with American Idol Katherine McPhee on “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and it’s totally not weird or anything.

    Celine Dion (but really Meat Loaf), “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë)

  • Manic Street Preachers, “Motorcycle Emptiness” (Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton)
  • Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” (The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank)
  • Katy Perry, “Firework” (On the Road by Jack Kerouac)
  • REM, “Disturbance at the Heron House” (Animal Farm by George Orwell)
  • The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil” (Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov)
  • The Roots, “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)” (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)
  • The Strokes, “Soma” (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley)
  • T’Pau, “China in Your Hand” (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
  • U2, “Shadows and Tall Trees” (Lord of the Flies by William Golding)

References and Further Reading:

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About WCPLtn

The Williamson County Public Library System seeks to meet the recreational, educational, and information needs of county patrons through: a significant collection of digital and print materials housed at a network of countywide locations headquartered in Franklin; extensive personal computer and related technology; and diverse and interesting programs targeted to various age groups.

Posted on March 1, 2019, in Hot Topics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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