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…
Billy Budd by Morrissey (1994)
Taking its title from Herman Melville’s posthumously published novella Billy Budd, this track from Morrissey’s 1994 album Vauxhall and I has inspired numerous interpretations from fans, with no concrete conclusion. Melville’s title character is a sacrificial symbol of perfection, sentenced to death at a drumhead trial, and fans have argued that Morrissey’s Billy Budd may be his Smiths bandmate Johnny Marr, or perhaps a mysterious former lover.
My Ántonia by Emmylou Harris (2000)
Sung as a duet with Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris’ musical interpretation of Willa Cather’s classic novel of the same name alternates between the perspective of Jim Burden and the titular Ántonia Shimerda. While Cather is more ambiguous about Jim’s feelings towards Ántonia, Harris clearly highlights a deep sense of regret at Jim’s decision to move from his childhood home and Ántonia, making this an elegy for love lost.
Tom Sawyer by Rush (1981)
If one were to associate Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer novels with any particular type of music, it would likely be the burgeoning folk music tradition associated with mid-19th century America. However, Canadian progressive rockers Rush immediately confound these expectations with rumbling opening synths which only become more audacious as the song continues. Their “modern day” reinterpretation of Twain’s classic character matches the music, and suggests that, like many of American literature’s greatest characters, Tom Sawyer transcends the boundaries of time.
Thieves in the Night by Black Star (1998)
Inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut novel The Bluest Eye, this track from Black Star’s only album questions how and why “the law of the bluest eye” can still exist, pushing black Americans to define their personal and communal self-worth through the standards of an oppressive white American culture. Mos Def’s verse is considered by many fans to be one of the finest in the history of hip hop, and the song reworks one of the most famous passages from Morrison’s novel for its distinctive hook: “And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved.”
Long Walk to Never by Jaymay (2010)
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s simplest short stories provides the inspiration for this song by New York folk singer-songwriter Jaymay. In Vonnegut’s story a young man goes AWOL to return home and stop his childhood love from marrying another man. Jaymay’s interpretation, however, alters the title from Vonnegut’s ‘Long Walk to Forever’ into ‘Long Walk to Never,’ reflecting a change of ending: while Vonnegut allows the lovers to be united, Jaymay’s speaker regrets that she and her beloved do not so easily fall into the roles of the story’s characters, and must instead walk different, separate paths.