Musical inspiration is as vast and vivid as imagination itself. Of course, at the core of a song is the story it tells.
No surprise, then, that musicians often find a guiding light in literature. From Shakespearian dramas to teen classics, here are a few of the literary guiding lights that inspired popular music.
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George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949)is a hugely influential work on musicians of all stripes.
David Bowie had a particular fascination with the dystopian novel. One of many songs inspired by it is "1984," released on the ’74 albumDiamond Dogs (ten years before the fatal Orwellian year). He warns listeners to “beware the savage jaw of 1984,” using a crushing metaphor for the omnipotent, omnipresent government that controls all culture and thought in Orwell’s novel. The lyric “they’ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air” relates to the dangers of totalitarian thought-control and brainwashing.
Paste Magazine suggests 1984 is “the only book referenced more in the punk rock canon than A Clockwork Orange.” The punk band Subhumans released “Big Brother” on the cusp of the actual year 1984. The title, of course, comes from Orwell’s name for the leader of the Party, the head of the fictional superstate Oceania. Lyrics from the chorus reflect Big Brother’s creepy omnipresence: “And somebody told me / Big Brother’s watching you / And somebody else said / ‘You know it’s not true’ / Who do you believe?”
In 2016 the alternative pop artist Douglas Dare released “Doublethink,” lifting another iconic term from the novel for his title. In 1984, doublethink is “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies…” Alternative facts sounds freakishly similar ...
With no shortage of epic tales, the Bible is a source of inspiration for much of Western art and music. Because aside from its religious connotations, it is a historical classic among literature.
Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 song “Adam Raised a Cain” references the tumultuous relationship between Adam and his son Cain, the jealous rebel who fell short and wandered down a crooked path. Springsteen sings, “You're born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else's past.” Springsteen said the song was “emotionally autobiographical.”
“Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is a Season),” written by Pete Seeger and later covered by The Byrds, closely adheres to a passage from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted….”
Def Leppard, Mahalia Jackson, Metallica, Muse, Mariah Carey, Josh Groban, and Kanye West are just a few of many other artists who released biblically-inspired songs.
The Bluest Eye
Another classic rap duo, Black Star (aka Mos Def and Talib Kweli) heard the muse’s whisper in Toni Morrisson’s The Bluest Eye. One of the themes of the novel is how, in American society, whiteness has set the standard for beauty. The title The Bluest Eye refers to the dream of the African American protagonist, who believes that the cruelty she experiences would never come to pass if she had blue eyes—if she conformed to white beauty standards.
In “Thieves in the Night,” Talib Kweli raps “we live the truest lie / I asked him why we follow the law of the bluest eye.” Then soon after “the question was rhetorical, the answer is horrible / Our morals are out of place and got our lives full of sorrow.”
Ultimately, the song’s message, as evidenced in the refrain, is to stop “hiding like thieves in the night from life,” and for people of color to “get to the true essence” and be fiercely proud of who they are.
The Shakespearean canon joins the Bible as one of the most important texts in the English language. Unsurprisingly, many musical artists consider Shakespeare a muse.
Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” is the singer’s connection between her own life experience and the iconic love story Romeo and Juliet. Swift thought she was in love, but her parents didn’t like the guy. In the song, “You were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles, and my daddy said, ‘Stay away from Juliet.’”
Mumford & Sons’ “Sigh No More” is inspired by Much Ado About Nothing. The song’s title and second verse come from a song performed by the character Balthasar in Act 2, Scene 3: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more / Men were deceivers ever / One foot in sea and one on shore / To on thing constant never.” Mumford & Sons incorporates their rendition of the lyric into a song of apology, with a rousing chorus that tells men “Love, it will not betray you” and to “Be more like the man you were made to be” (a lover, not a deceiver).
Rufus Wainwright is another artist who loves the Bard, with an entire album dedicated to his work. Released in 2016, the album is called “Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets.”
The Walrus and the Carpenter
From the imaginative genius of Lewis Carrol sprang “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a narrative poem recited by Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Through the Looking Glass.
There aren’t many famous walrus songs out there, but the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” is more than sufficient to represent them. And, the inspiration, of course, came from Lewis Carrol’s poem. Having written the song on several acid trips, John Lennon said there weren’t any deep meanings behind it. The repeated line “I am the walrus” might simply come from Lennon’s childhood love of the poem. For any child, it is intriguing to think of a walrus who can speak “of shoes and ships and sealing-wax / Of cabbages and kings / And why the sea is boiling hot / And whether pigs have wings.” Sounds a little like “See how they run like pigs from a gun / See how they fly,” no?
Years later, in a 1980 interview with Playboy, Lennon said, "It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles' work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, s--t, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, 'I am the carpenter.' But, that wouldn't have been the same, would it?"
In 1978, Kate Bush released “Wuthering Heights,” a song whose literary inspiration is dead-easy to identify. At high pitch, Bush lyrically re-tells Emily Brontë’s classic narrative of the turbulent romance between Heathcliff and Catherine.
Bush’s song is from Catherine’s perspective—in fact, (spoiler alert) it’s as if Catherine’s ghost were singing to Heathcliff. She first remembers their love and jubilance “out on the wiley, windy moors,” but then touches on Heathcliff’s temper and her desire to possess him (and another man, who she ends up marrying instead). Though they go their separate ways in life and love, they are soulmates and after Catherine’s death in childbirth, her ghost haunts Heathcliff. Bush’s chorus “I’ve come home, I’m so cold, let me in through your window” is Catherine’s constant, haunting presence.
This song pulls from Wuthering Heights the essence of what so many torrid love songs are about and beautifully captures it in the opening verse: “You had a temper like my jealousy / Too hot, too greedy / How could you leave me / When I needed to posses you? / I hated you, I loved you, too.”
Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings is a fountain of inspiration for musicians, particularly in heavy metal and rock genres.
In writing the song “This Day We Fight” (incidentally a direct quote from Return of the King), heavy metal band Megadeth took inspiration from inciting pre-battle speeches by the characters Aragorn and Théoden. Within the same genre, the Canadian band Rush released a song titled “Rivendell,” clearly influenced by the Elven realm in Tolkien’s fictional world.
Led Zeppelin offer their interpretations of LOTR themes in the songs “The Battle of Evermore” and “Ramble On.” The former makes references to “the Queen of Light,” “the Prince of Peace,” and “the dark Lord”—allusions to LOTR characters Galadriel, Frodo Baggins, and Sauron. “Ramble On” creates a parallel between Frodo and Sam’s mission and Led Zeppelin’s journey as a band. Like the precious One Ring that Frodo carries, the band achieves everything they could imagine, but both the ring and fame can bring destruction to those who become obsessed with them.
The Master and Margarita
Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margaritasituates Soviet Moscow as a realm of magical realism, where the Devil himself descends to play tricks on mankind. Along with him is a wildly eccentric posse, including a sensitive feline with a penchant for vodka. Why wouldn’t musicians everywhere not love this masterwork?
Most famously, The Rolling Stones took inspiration from Bulgakov in their hit “Sympathy for the Devil.” In the song’s famous first line, Mick Jagger makes the polite request, “Please allow me to introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste/ I’ve been around for a long, long year / Stole many a man’s soul and faith.” The song, as the book, explores the “puzzling” nature of the Devil’s game.
The title of Patti Smith’s 2012 albumBanga refers to a dog in Bulgakov’s novel. In an interview with the British newspaper The Sun, Smith said “The dog was loyal for 2,000 years on the edge of heaven…the dog didn’t run around heaven looking for bones. He sat at his master’s feet. I thought that is true loyalty and used it as a fun metaphor for all the loyalty I’ve experienced.”
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird explores the joys and fears of childhood, while also taking a poignant look at race-relations in the Depression-era south. Atticus Finch, the father of two of the novel's young protagonists, is a lawyer who takes on the case of a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. Atticus offers strong proof of Tom’s innocence, but racist whites won’t hear of it and Tom is convicted.
In the song “Atticus,” the London indie rock band Noisettes open with the lyrics “To kill a mockingbird is to silence the song that seduces you.” As a tribute to Atticus’s courage, humanity, and moral uprightness, Noisettes sing “Constellations tonight are so fiercesomely bright, my love / I have no fear / I am Atticus now.”
The title of Bruce Hornsby’s jazz track “Sneaking Up on Boo Radley” refers to the mysterious recluse that Scout, the young female protagonist, first fears and then comes to respect.
The Brit pop group The Boo Radleys wrote a number of songs influenced by Harper’s novel, including “Wake Up Boo!” The band read the book in school and said it was the only one that really had an impact. Sometimes one is all it takes.
Another of Orwell’s novels to have taken shape in song is the satire Animal Farm, an allegorical novel about class struggles and the corruption of communist Russia.
In 1977, Pink Floyd released Animals, an entire album influenced by Orwell’s novel. Following the narrative, songs on the album describe three different categories of people: conniving “dogs” who bully everyone, oppressive “pigs” who run society, and spineless “sheep” who blindly follow everyone else.
In 2000, the hip hop duo Dead Prez released “Animal in Man,” creatively re-telling the narrative in spitting rhyme. As they tell the story, in the beginning, “sh** was calm.” The farmer was “acting like Mr. Magnificent / But the animals were thinking something different / The sentiment was tension in the barnyard […] And they all came to one conclusion / They argued there was no way they’d ever be free / If it was up to humans / Therefore the only course left was revolution…”
Not surprisingly, given the cultural and political climate now, George Orwell is having "a major moment."