A Literary Playlist

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I see the world of art as one expansive tapestry. No particular work exists in a vacuum; its fabric overlaps its artistic neighbors. Dyes blend. Threads interweave. Over time, a gorgeous picture is revealed made of myriad strands that—while precious in their individual ways—are elevated by their intricate connections to and contrasts with each other.

Thus, I love digging into my favorite musicians’ influences, competitors, and companions. Because if you listen closely enough, you’ll hear each one expressed in their music. Take the Beatles for example (because I always use the Beatles). You can hear the “Woo!” of Little Richard on their song “Oh! Darling,” or their Beach Boys nod on “Back in the USSR,” or their attempt to one-up the reckless loudness of The Who on “Helter Skelter.” Each song is wonderful without knowing how it connects to the larger tapestry of art, but picking up on these little Easter eggs of influence just fills me with such delight.

The influence of art on new art becomes even more interesting when different media and styles cross-pollinate. A painting may inspire a poem that gives voice to the emotions it conjures, or a film may bring to life the words of an author, either through adaptation or abstract inspiration. Of course, this sort of cross-pollination can be done poorly. The filmmaker could just copy onto the screen what is written on the page. The poet could create a word picture of the painting without any expression of why she believes the painting to be worthy of her time. These expressions don’t add anything to the tapestry of art but a shiny new coat of fabric paint to cover the original.

Sometimes, however, an artist is able to adorn a thread from the tapestry—extending it, changing it, and giving both the new artwork and its inspiration elevated importance. This concept is at work in the wonderful ballad “Runaway” by singer-songwriter Jess Ray, which takes the children’s story Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown—a story about a bunny who wants to leave his mother who promises faithfully to run after him no matter how far he runs—and recontextualizes it by connecting this show of relentless love to the love of God who promises to pursue every lost child. Each time I read Brown’s story or hear Ray’s song, I’m reminded of the other. Each is enriched by the other, and I, the listener/reader, feel doubly nourished by their connection.

To further express this idea, we’ve asked a handful of friends to share some of their favorite songs inspired by literature. Some are humorous (Leonard Nimoy’s “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”, Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex”); some are hope-filled (Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips’ “I Will Find A Way”); some are a gut punch (J. Cole’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”). But with every song, the tapestry is expanded, adorned, and made truer.

Listen at the links below, and keep reading for a full list of songs and their novels, stories, and poems that inspired them.

Click here to listen on Apple Music.

And click here to listen on Spotify.

Biblical Literature

“Two Doves” – Dirty Projectors (Song of Solomon)
“Wisdom” – Jill Phillips (The Book of Proverbs)
“Song of Songs” – Pierce Pettis (Song of Solomon)
“Samson” – Regina Spektor (The Book of Judges)
“The Transfiguration” – Sufjan Stevens (The Gospel of Matthew)

The Greeks

“Ulysses” – Josh Garrels (The Odyssey – Homer)
“Wait For Me” – Anaïs Mitchell (The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice)
“It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” – Arcade Fire (The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice)
“Daedalus” – Thrice (The myth of Daedalus)
“Oedipus Rex” – Tom Lehrer (Oedipus Rex – Sophocles)

Shakespeare

“Romeo and Juliet” – Dire Straits (Romeo and Juliet)
“Ophelia” – Natalie Merchant (Hamlet)
“Sigh No More” – Mumford and Sons (Much Ado About Nothing)
“Sound + Fury” – Ella Mine (Macbeth)

The Poets

“Weight of Living, Pt. I” – Bastille (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
“The Road Not Taken” – Bruce Hornsby & the Range (“The Road Not Taken” – Robert Frost)
“Afternoons and Coffeespoons” – Crash Test Dummies (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – T.S. Eliot)|“A Boy Named Sue” – Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue” – Shel Silverstein)
“Adventures of Isabel” – Natalie Merchant (“Adventures of Isabel” – Ogden Nash)
“Richard Cory” – Simon & Garfunkel (“Richard Cory” – Edwin Arlington Robinson)
“The Stolen Child” – The Waterboys (“The Stolen Child” – W.B. Yeats)
“Death, Be Not Proud” – Audrey Assad (“Death, Be Not Proud” – John Donne)
“Another New World” – Josh Ritter (“Annabelle Lee” – Edgar Allan Poe)
“Xanadu” – Rush (“Kubla Khan” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Classics

“To The End” – My Chemical Romance (“A Rose For Emily” – William Faulkner)
“A Rose For Emily” – The Zombies (“A Rose For Emily” – William Faulkner)
“Don Quixote” – Gordon Lightfoot (Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes)
“Wuthering Heights” – Kate Bush (Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë)
“Valjean” – Penny and Sparrow (Les Miserables – Victor Hugo)
“The Ballad of Jody Baxter” – Andrew Peterson (The Yearling – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings)

Steinbeck

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” – Bruce Springsteen (The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck)
“Timshel” – Mumford and Sons (East of Eden – John Steinbeck)
“The Pearl” – Fleming and John (The Pearl – John Steineck)
“Sweet Thursday” – Matt Costa (Sweet Thursday – John Steinbeck)

The Inklings

“In the House of Tom Bombadil” – Nickel Creek (The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien)
“Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” – Leonard Nimoy (The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien)
“Riddles in the Dark” – Chris Thile (The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien)
“Ramble On” – Led Zeppelin (Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien)
“Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue, Pt. 2” – Jason Gray (The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien)
“Dear Wormwood” – The Oh Hellos (The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis)
“The High Countries” – Sandra McCracken (The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis)
“The Lament of Eustace Scrubb” – The Oh Hellos (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – C.S. Lewis)
“Out of the Silent Planet” – King’s X (Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis)

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Oddities

“Desert Rose” – Sting (Dune – Frank Herbert)
“Empress” – The Arcadian Wild (“Harrison Bergeron” – Kurt Vonnegut)
“Tomorrow Never Knows” – The Beatles (The Psychedelic Experience – Timothy Leary)
“Moon Over Bourbon Street” – Sting (Interview With the Vampire – Anne Rice)
“Soma” – The Strokes (Brave New World – Aldous Huxley)
“2+2=5” – Radiohead (1984 – George Orwell)
“Home” – Breaking Benjamin (The Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum)

Contemporary Literature

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” – Metallica (For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway)
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” – J. Cole (For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway)
“Thieves in the Night” – Black Star (The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison)
“Atticus” – Noisettes (To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee)
“Kumalo” – Matthew Clark (Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton)
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” – Sufjan Stevens (“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” – Flannery O’Connor)
“The Life You Chose” – Jason Isbell (The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath)
“Song For Myla Goldberg” – The Decemberists (Bee Season – Myla Goldberg)
“Rain King” – Counting Crows (Henderson the Rain King – Saul Bellow)
“Shadows and Tall Trees” – U2 (Lord of the Flies – William Golding)
“The God of Loss” – Darlingside (The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy)
“Take Me Down” – Son of Laughter (The Crucible – Arthur Miller)
“I Will Find A Way” – Andy Gullahorn & Jill Phillips (Ragman And Other Cries Of Faith – Walt Wangerin)
“Caught It From the Rye” – Tre Burt (The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger)

Non-Fiction Literature

“Maya” – Rapsody (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou)
“Julie” – Rhiannon Giddens (The Slaves’ War – Andrew Ward)
“Wear Your Wedding Dress” – Ben Shive (The Mystery of Marriage – Mike Mason)
“O Theo” – Matthew Perryman Jones (Dear Theo – Vincent Van Gogh)
“Skin” – Vigilantes of Love (Dear Theo – Vincent Van Gogh)
“Bus 152” – Eric Peters (Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer)

Children’s Literature

“Runaway” – Jess Ray (Runaway Bunny – Margaret Wise Brown)
“Everywhere I Go” – Becca Jordan (Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You – Nancy Tillman)
“The House At Pooh Corner” – Kenny Loggins (The House At Pooh Corner – A.A. Milne)
“Run Down” – Eric Peters (Watership Down – Richard Adams)
“Secret Garden” – Bruce Springsteen (The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett)

Thank you to all who contributed to this playlist: Janna Barber, John Barber, Jeremy Casella, Shigé Clark, Matt Conner, Steve Guthrie, Ella Horn, Jonny Jimison, J Lind, Thomas McKenzie, Mark Meynell, David Mitchel, Andrew Peterson, Pete Peterson, Russ Ramsey, Chris Slaten, Helena Sorensen, Chris Thiessen, Leslie Thompson, Janie Townsend, Jennifer Trafton, Chris Wheeler, Hetty White, Adam Whipple, Chris Yokel

Click here to listen on Apple Music.

And click here to listen on Spotify.


9 Comments

  1. Mander Ritzert

    I would have included the whole album “Into the Lantern Waste” by Sarah Sparks, especially “Eustace Scrubb,” which is the best song on the album. The whole album is based on the Chronicles of Narnia!

  2. Jaslyn

    I love this!! 😀 I’d also recommend ‘Into the Lantern Waste’… as well as the entirety of Anais Mitchell’s ‘Hadestown’ (there are SO many good songs on the concept album, not to mention the Broadway cast recording). And Mumford & Sons has a whole album of songs filled with literary references, though aside from the ones already included, I can only think of The Cave (which explores Plato’s allegory of the cave)…

  3. Matthew Philip

    If you had an “album titles” category, you could use Lyle Lovett’s “Joshua Judges Ruth” 🙂

  4. Sara Baumgardner

    @sarabaumgardner

    We know that the Anais Mitchell record about Orpheus & Eurydice has become the AMAZING musical Hadestown, right?? “Wait for Me” is stunning in that setting.

  5. Penelope

    There’s also an Iron Maiden song called “Out of the Silent Planet.”
    Any playlist with U2, Rush, and Metallica all on it is a great playlist.

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