The creative processes of literary writing and songwriting have always been intertwined. Musicians such as Bob Dylan and Patti Smith have successfully crossed over into the literary realm, winning awards and critical praise for their poetry and autobiographies. Likewise, many famous American writers have expressed musical leanings: both Jack Kerouac and Maya Angelou recorded albums; Shel Silverstein wrote songs for Johnny Cash, while Allen Ginsberg wrote and performed with The Clash; and Thomas Pynchon is known to fill his novels with made-up song lyrics.
In this ongoing series, Christian Kriticos selects some of his favorite songs inspired by American writings, to form the American Literature playlist…
The River by PJ Harvey (1998)
PJ Harvey drew inspiration from Flannery O’Connor’s short story of the same name for this track from her fourth album Is This Desire?, borrowing phrases such as “the white sun scattered,” and “to be washed away, slow,” directly from O’Connor for her lyrics. Although Harvey’s adaptation does not outline the plot of O’Connor’s story, the mood is captured through her ghostly vocals, and a sparse accompaniment which gradually and almost imperceptibly builds to an unsettling conclusion.
Richard Cory by Simon & Garfunkel (1965)
When Paul Simon composed this song he was fairly faithful to the original poem of the same name by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. Although his lyrics diverge from the original, Simon, like Robinson, wrote from the perspective of the working classes as they observe the enigmatic title character who seemingly has it all, only to “put a bullet through his head” at the end. Simon, however, adds a final chorus, which suggests that, despite his suicide, the people are still envious of Cory and the wealth which failed to bring him happiness.
What Ever Happened? by The Strokes (2003)
Not so much an adaptation of a work of American literature, this song instead revolves around a single moment from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire to project its meaning. The song describes a break-up, fused with disenchanting images of The Strokes’ burgeoning success, before reaching the lines “Oh Tennessee, what did you write? / I come together in the middle of the night. / Oh that’s an ending that I can’t write / ‘Cause I’ve got you to let me down.” The verse seems to refer to the famous scene in Williams’ play in which Stanley shouts to Stella beneath her window, begging for forgiveness. While in the play Stanley is forgiven, the speaker in this song is not so optimistic, believing that he cannot write the same fate for himself, as his love will only let him down.
The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen (1995)
It is a testament to the influence of John Steinbeck’s writing on the American national consciousness that Bruce Springsteen was able to write this song before he had even read The Grapes of Wrath. And, in a way, that is exactly the point of the song, as Springsteen transplants the figure of Tom Joad from the 30’s dust bowl into 90’s America, complete with fears about “the new world order,” illustrating the fact that Steinbeck’s hero is an immortal character, present in every generation, and as much a part of the American landscape as the prairie, the Great Lakes, or railroad tracks.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone (1970)
Inspiration struck Nina Simone when she saw an old photograph of her friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and somehow felt she was trying to tell her something. Hansberry had died in 1965, and Simone took the title of her autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black as her inspiration, writing the song in a few days with help from Weldon Irvine. The song became an anthem for the ongoing Civil Rights movement and hit the Top Ten on the R&B charts. Simone later said “I really think that she [Hansberry] gave it to me,” making this song as much Hansberry’s as it is Simone’s.