As a holiday gift for you, we asked members of the Kansas State English Department to name their favorite “literary” song, and, well, at least a couple of them couldn’t pick just one, so maybe you’ve been extra good this year?
Here are the results—the department’s literary playlist, via Spotify, that ranges from Coltrane to Kendrick Lamar to Iron Maiden, followed by our guest DJs and their rationales. (Of course, a bunch of us dig Joni Mitchell! We’re English Department people!)
Patti Smith, “Land,” from her 1975 Horses album. Although her inspiration to become a writer came from Alcott’s Little Women, Smith’s songs combine the non-linear surrealism of the French Symbolist poets (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé) with the Beat and Outlaw traditions in U.S. poetry. Musically, “Land” is an homage to R&B and the moment punk rock is born. Lyrically, “Land” narrates a moment of high school violence in the language of sacred Shamans and blasphemous rockers, death and desire, freedom and inevitability. Like the 19th-century Transcendentalist texts that helped shaped it, “Land” rebelliously rejects conventional society, which is corrupt and confining, in search of a self that is incomplete but also holy. — Greg Eiselein, Professor and Director of K-State First
Joni Mitchell, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” Such a great adaption of Yeats’s poem. He was expressing the idea of a major epochal shift, something on the magnitude of christ’s birth or total ecological collapse. Mitchell’s vocals soar. — Christina Hauck, Associate Professor
I don’t think I have a favorite (so many to choose from), but for the purpose of this exercise I’ll go with Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” for its poetic take on kitchen-sink realism, its sense of humor, its lack of a chorus, and naming the title only in its final line. If you want more than one, we could add Blackalicious’ “Alphabet Aerobics” for its accelerating abecedarian adventure. And Laurie Anderson’s “The Dream Before” for its appropriation of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history (from “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) in its second verse. And I could go on. — Phil Nel, University Distinguished Professor
The one that comes to my mind is “Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell. It always makes me think of the end of Catcher in the Rye, connecting carousels to the passing of seasons and growing up. It also tells a great narrative even without the literary connection. — Daniel Gillespie (M.A. ’18)
I find the juxtaposition of comedy and tension in the cadences of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” to be somewhat literary. Although wordless, this ragtime piece seems to be telling a story (with characters left to be determined by the listener) about a humorous struggle. — Ania Payne, Instructor
This may not be literary enough, but “Caperucita (Little Red Riding Hood)” by First Aid Kit is my favorite story-song because it uses the natural rhythm in the call and response of Red’s conversation with the wolf as a musical element. Plus, it’s bilingual. 🙂 — Mary Kohn, associate professor
“Nothing Arrived” by Villagers basically embodies the tragi-comedy trope. It’s an ode to the empty void, yet it suggests this meaninglessness somehow binds us all together. The lead singer Conor O’Brien said it was “very influenced by Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five– that feeling of deep, dark moments being placed alongside compulsive hilarity.” I prefer the Live From Spotify London version on Spotify. It’s intimate and acoustic. Oh, also if you need another great song: “Which Witch” (Demo) by Florence + The Machine. This tune’s an intro to a story about a witch who loves someone who dies from some accident and everyone thinks she did it. Strong Crucible vibes and a hyperbolic critique of an apocalyptic Hollywood. — Anna Meyer (B.A. ’17)
Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is not only one of my favorite “literary songs,” but also, a perennial karaoke standard of mine (much to the chagrin of the audience, I must add). The song evokes the moody atmosphere of Emily Bronte’s novel by the same name with its ethereal melody, gravity-defying high notes, and haunting refrain: “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy/ I’ve come home, I’m so cold/ Let me in through your window.” Whenever I think of Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost roaming the Yorkshire moors, I cannot help but hear Kate Bush’s voice echoing in the wind. — Shirley Tung, Assistant Professor
Perhaps the best known literary pop song, Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” isn’t just a seventies classic: it’s also one of the best adaptions around of Emily Bronte’s novel. Bush’s otherworldly vocals and haunting, overwrought lyrics capture the sheer strangeness of Bronte’s only novel in a way few film or t.v. versions match. “Charge” by The Divine Comedy: Neil Hannon, frontman and song writer of The Divine Comedy, can scarcely write a pop lyric without showing off his reading, from allusions to the poetry of W. B. Yeats and George Orwell’s memoirs to references to Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm and even Dante’s epic itself. My favourite Hannon song is, however, “Charge,” a valiant attempt to turn Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of Light Brigade” into occasionally angry lounge music. What’s not to like? — Anne Longmuir, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies
Indigo Girls’ “Virginia Woolf” came out would when I had returned to school in my late 20s for my undergraduate degree. I was taking a Modernist class, and their lyrics described the magic I felt about the incredible world I was discovering as I read the classics for the first time: “And here’s a young girl / on a kind of a telephone line through time / And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend.” — Lisa Tatonetti, professor
The Verve’s “History,” with lyrics mostly by William Blake, and Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” nearly 14 minutes of heavy metal bliss. — Mark Crosby, Associate Professor
In Rilo Kiley’s “More Adventurous,” Jenny Lewis sings, “I read with every broken heart/ We should become more adventurous.” She’s semi-quoting Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency,” in which he says, “Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous.” It gets literary kudos for quoting O’Hara but also for doing what we want literature (and great songs) to do, which is to make us brave enough to be more human. — Traci Brimhall, Assistant Professor
My first thought is “Oxford Comma” by Vampire Weekend, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate, given the lyrics: “Who gives a [flip!] about an Oxford comma?” And, really, it’s not super literary except that part. I also thought of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”? I sort of love the line “No, his mind is not for rent / To any God or government / Always hopeful yet discontent / He knows changes aren’t permanent / But change is.” Something about “always hopeful yet discontent” is such a fantastic description of that character. But the best might be Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” The whole thing is such a haunting commentary on poverty in America, referencing The Grapes of Wrath and remarking that while the dust bowl is gone, this sort of crushing poverty is not:
“Men walking ‘long the railroad tracks
Going someplace, there’s no going back
Highway patrol choppers coming up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretching ’round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleeping in the cars in the southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest.”
— Abby Knoblauch, Associate Professor
Let me offer the whole album by Bruce Springsteen, The Ghost of Tom Joad. There is, of course, the wonderful title track with its sad refrain:
“Well the highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
Waiting on the ghost of Tom Joad”
I love this song’s insistence that homelessness and social injustice are, apparently, part of the “American Way.” Another favorite from the album is the song “Youngstown.” Think about that line: “My sweet Jenny I’m sinkin’ down…. here, darling, in Youngstown.” Personally, I like to hear that as an echo of the Ohio poet James Wright’s poems that address a woman named “Jenny,” who shows up in several poems but especially “To the Muse,” where he imagines her drowned in the Ohio River. The poem ends
“Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.”
Nobody else seems to hear that in Springsteen, but I do. Both Springsteen and Wright address Ohio’s broken industrial landscapes (Wright when the steel mills and the coal mines were in full throttle, destroying the environment; Springsteen decades later, when the economy that was balanced on destructive practices has collapsed). — Elizabeth Dodd, University Distinguished Professor
The songs I’d suggest are “Roulette Dares (In Haunt Of)” and “Cicatriz ESP.” Both are by The Mars Volta, off their 2003 album De-Loused in the Comatorium. The album tells a story of a man named Cerpin Taxt who accidentally overdoses on a mixture of morphine and rat poison. Taxt is a stand-in for the El Paso, Texas artist Julio Venegas — a friend of the band’s lead singer who died in 1996. In addition to this narrative element, the album plays with language, often alternating between English, Spanish, and Portuguese. This is further complicated by the fact that the band uses common acronyms but changes the meaning of said acronyms and their usage — such as when they changed ESP from “Extrasensory Perception” to “Ectopic Shapeshifting Penance-propulsion.” — Maxwell Malone (M.A. ’18)
Nina Simone’s “Suzanne.” This song is one of my “literary” favorites because it expands on Leonard Cohen’s exploration of muse by attaching an analogous biblical retelling, making us rethink both the biblical narrative and Cohen’s conception of muse, all in the splendidly evocative voice of Simone. — Peter Williams (M.A. ’18)
Wow, Peter’s is a great choice, and by far my favorite version of that song. I’m almost certainly overthinking this, but I’m trying to keep myself from just giving answers focused on lyrics so that I can embrace the particular power that music has to express what literature can in ways that literature cannot. In that vein, here are a few, since I couldn’t pick just one:
Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. City” shows how you can use the human voice and genre in song to inhabit a whole community and show its conflicts and redemptions. (Plus it’s a climactic moment in an album-long nonlinear narrative following the classic structure of African American literary form).
Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is a pastiche of various folk song forms filtered through gospel and shows how simplicity and economy of language can often express far more than verbosity.
On the other hand, Bob Dylan’s “Brownsville Girl” (co-written by Sam Shepard) uses a lot of words, and I’m not sure exactly what any of it means (and it’s on Bob Dylan’s worst album), but it feels like the end of the world. Best part: the synthetic drums and background singers creating an odd call and response.
The great subject of the pop song is love, and Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” is a perfect love song (beautiful and sad like all great love songs are). But what I love most about it is how her phrasing (drawn from her love of jazz) shows just how much lies behind such apparently simple lyrics.
I’ll stop, but that was fun to think about, I even had a dozen more to add (plus it reminded me of my love of Willie Nelson’s novelistic Red Headed Stranger).
Oh wait, one more I did want to add for sure:
John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” since music doesn’t need words to be literary. — Cameron Leader-Picone, Associate Professor