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…
Enter Sylvia Plath by Belle & Sebastian (2015)
With an earlier song inviting listeners to “Give yourself up to the allure of Catcher in the Rye,” it seems clear that the Glaswegian indie rockers Belle & Sebastian appreciate their American literature. However, this song from their most recent album took everyone by surprise. Described by frontman Stuart Murdoch as “as a disco number about Sylvia Plath,” the unusual pairing of lyrics inspired by one of America’s most famously tortured poets with an upbeat synth-disco backing baffled some listeners; but, like Plath – poet, novelist, painter, and children’s book author – this shift of genre reflects the fact that the band simply can’t be pinned down by one genre or form.
Ghost World by Aimee Mann (2000)
Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World has the distinct honor of being the only comic book featured on the American Writers Museum website’s homepage. And indeed, if any comic deserved a place in a museum it would be this one. The spirit of Clowes’ teenage saga of nothingness is translated into song on Aimee Mann’s 2000 album Bachelor No. 2, perfectly capturing the isolation of the wasteland years after high school.
The Sprawl by Sonic Youth (1988)
Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is known to be a big fan of William Gibson, naming the first track on their 2004 album Sonic Nurse after his novel Pattern Recognition. In this earlier song, Gordon tackles Gibson’s famous Sprawl trilogy, naming the song for the fictional urban sprawl area which extends across America’s east coast in Gibson’s dystopian world. The aggressive over-driven guitars reinforce the foulness of Gibson’s Sprawl, and Gordon’s lyrics paint an image of a world of consumerism and technology, devoid of common humanity or natural beauty.
Annabel Lee by Joan Baez (1967)
Taking Edgar Allan Poe’s posthumously published poem of the same name almost word for word, Joan Baez beautifully projects this tragic love story set to music by Don Dilworth. Poe’s poem concerns a speaker recounting his love for the title character, which was so strong that the angels were jealous, striking down his Annabel Lee. Baez’s whimsical vocals strike to the heart of this fantasy story, and the arrangement, which moves away from Baez’s folk origins, provides the appropriate aural fairy tale backing.
The Hamilton Mixtape by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2009)
First performed at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009, Lin-Mauel Miranda’s blistering hip hop tribute to Founding Father Alexander Hamilton has since been expanded into a full-blown musical. Manuel specifically identifies Hamilton’s political writings as the source for his fascination with the man, stating “All on the strength of his writing, I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.” And like all great creative minds, Manuel takes his source of inspiration and does not imitate, but spins it into something completely different, and creates a truly original piece, great in its own right.