The great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote “music begins where the possibilities of language end.” As proud music nerds and book nerds, we’re often reminded of how literature has served as an inspirational source for composers and songwriters throughout history. In celebration of National Library Week, we’re exploring the rich relationship between music and the written word with our top arrangements of downloadable sheet music inspired by literature and books.
A prized book and a great song often incorporate many of the same storytelling elements: a compelling plot, an intentional cadence, and an emotional resolution. Paperback writers and piano men alike use universal human conditions to pull at our heartstrings and touch us on a personal level. We all may relate to Jay Gatsby’s ambition, Atticus Finch’s conviction and/or Scarlett O-Hara’s pride on any given day.
And so, without further ado, let’s dig our noses into 10 songs that are inspired by, or pay homage to, prized books and literary characters (in no particular order).
10. The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen’s folk-rock song channels the redemption of John Steinbeck’s dust bowl ‘Grapes of Wrath’ protagonist in this 1995 release. Woody Guthrie also commemorated Joad’s journey in his 1960 song.
2. White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane
Grace Slick wrote “White Rabbit,” based on imagery in Lewis Carrol’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” prior to joining Jefferson Airplane. The psychedelic song was one of the band’s most successful charting singles, reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967.
3. 1984 by David Bowie
George Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” prompted Bowie to write a musical based on the novel. Unfortunately, the concept never fully materialized. His songs “1984” and “Big Brother” were included on the 1974 album ‘Diamond Dogs’ instead.
4. Tom Sawyer by Rush
Prog rockers Rush worked with lyricist/poet Pye Dubois on the song “Tom Sawyer” as “a portrait of a modern day rebel, a free-spirited individualist.” A certainly fitting description of Mark Twain’s coming-of-age character. The song has since become a signature of the band.
5. Home at Last by Steely Dan
Jazz supergroup Steely Dan featured “Home at Last” on their critically acclaimed 1977 album “Aja.” The song details Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens following the Trojan War in Homer’s “The Odessey.” Steely Dan isn’t the only group to use Homer’s epic as source material. Cream and Suzanne Vega also have famously referenced the tale.
6. House at Pooh Corner by Kenny Loggins
Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin both muse on the loss of childhood innocence in Loggins’ “House at Pooh Corner,” based on the tales by A. A. Milne. Loggins re-released the song with an additional verse about Pooh finding his way home in 1994’s “Return to Pooh Corner.”
7. I Am the Walrus by The Beatles
Legend has that John Lennon aimed to create the most confusing lyrics possible when penning “I Am the Walrus.” He took the position of the walrus in Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” prior to realizing that the walrus is the tale’s antagonist. “I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter,'” said Lennon in a 1980 interview. “But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?”
George Harrison’s “Inner Light” is another notable Beatles single based on lit. It’s lyrics are an interpretation of the ancient “Tao Te Ching.”
8. Ramble On by Led Zeppelin
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” references are peppered throughout Led Zeppelin works. In “Ramble On,” Jimmy Page and Robert Plant write about a version of Middle Earth where Gollum is more interested in wooing women than seizing the One Ring.
9. Pigs (Three Different Ones) by Pink Floyd
A track from Pink Floyd’s 1977 ‘Animals,’ the politically-charged concept album inspired by and loosely based off of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” references the animal that symbolizes the wealthy and powerful in the Roger Waters song.
10. Lost Boy by Ruth B.
J.M. Barrie’s lost boy Peter Pan took his first flight in a 1904 stage play. Following its success, Barrie adapted the play into the 1911 novel “Peter and Wendy,” and, as they say, the rest is history. Ruth B. channels Peter and his band of brothers in her song “Lost Boy,” saying in an interview that, for her, music is her Peter Pan, in that it makes her feel at home.
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We hope this list of lit-inspired songs inspires you to make music. In the off-chance that none of these titles speaks to you, April 28th just happens to be Poetry Reading Day. We’ll be celebrating it as “Poetry Sheet Music Reading Day,” with MORE popular songs based on poems, including “Memory” from ‘Cats’ (based on T.S. Elliot’s “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”); “Richard Corey” by Simon & Garfunkel (based on Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem by the same name); “Sonnet 29” by Georgia Stitt (text by William Shakespeare); “A Bad Dream” by Keane (based on W.B. Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”); and Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit” (by Lewis Allan).
Do you have a favorite song based on literature or poetry? Have you ever used written word as inspiration when composing? Share your thoughts and insights in the comments section below, and happy (sheet music) reading!