Literature in Music

todayFebruary 16, 2018 17

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By Eduardo Baz
Music Journalist

In Patti Smith’s self written memoir, “Just Kids,” Smith, poet/singer-songwriter, documents her journey into becoming a musician who consistently tries to combine expressive literature and poetry into her songwriting. In the first verse off of her most acclaimed song “Because the Night” (co-written with Bruce Springsteen), we are given clear example of this venture. “Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe / Love is a banquet on which we feed” creatively contributes to the song’s overall focus of trying to poetically state that the night “belongs to lovers.” Smith grew up adoring and digesting famous works of literature but also found a deep connection and appreciation for music by being exposed to and contributing to the New York music scene of the late 60s and 70s. This desire to blend two concepts, typically unassociated with the other, into one interesting and coherent piece of art, became a foundation and a staple for Smith. Together she was able to craft music that is alluring and curious for the listener, and allows a sense of open-endedness when it comes to interpretation.

Smith is not the only artist who attempts to integrate poetry into their music. A prime example and winner of the Nobel prize in literature (the first musician to do so) is Bob Dylan. After ranking “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963) as the second best song he had written, Rolling Stone asked Dylan what his mindset was while he wrote that song. He simply responded by saying that he wanted each line to sound like the start of a new song. “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it / I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it / I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’ / I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin” all deeply reflect this idea.

The Velvet Underground is another great example of a band who tries to leave the listener unsure, however still magnetized, when in regards to lyrical interpretation. “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” written by frontman Lou Reed, is an ambiguous description of the people who actively dispensed artistic material in Andy Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory. “And where will she go and what shall she do / When midnight comes around / She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown / And cry behind the door” is reportedly about a girl who was involved in Warhol’s group of inner artists.

There can also be instances where artists draw inspiration from a specific piece of literature and use this towards a song. “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane was written by Grace Slick before she actually joined Jefferson Airplane and explicitly references many characters and imagery from Lewis Carrol’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1865) and her sequel, “Through the Looking Glass” (1871). According to Slick, “White Rabbit” is about following your curiosity which can be revealed through “When logic and proportion / Have fallen sloppy dead / And the White Knight is talking backwards / anad the Red Queen’s off with her head / Remember what the Dormouse said / Feed your head / Feed your head / Feed your head.”

Using elements from literature and combining them into creating music can be a highly effective device in creating something that is interesting and captivating. Audiences can be left indecisive towards a definitive meaning but in many cases, this can lead to further creativity when construing a meaning. Listeners can also be given lyricism that innovatively expresses a direct message. Whatever the case may be, there is always something more to deconstruct when analyzing music that has been influenced and touched with literature in some form.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.

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