Sunday, September 6, 2009

top ten songs about literature

the Bard: click to go to the online Complete works of ShakespeareI've wanted to do a post on songs about books etc for a long time The main effort in compiling it went into tracing a reference for no 10, which was a hit in 1978. At the time, I remember a lot of references were made to the song, A Rose has to Die, having Shakespeare as its influence - yes, you heard it here first: there was a time when pop hits were based on things like Shakespeare!

So I had a look through the OpenSourceShakespeare Online Concordance and the best guess that I could make is that the song is a meditation on Sonnet I:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light'st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

But I'd be interested in knowing what you think. So, here goes!

10 - Shakespeare?

The Dooleys were a family band who started out in 1967, and once remarked that it took 10 years' hard work to make it as an overnight success. Here's the aforementioned hit, which made no. 11 in the UK charts in 1978.

9 - Captains Courageous

Milva has been a recording legend in Italy since the early 1960s and is nicknamed after her birthplace as "the panther of Goro". This is her tribute to Captains Corageous, the story of a boy who falls of a steamer and is rescued by a fishing boat, written by Rudyard Kipling and starring Spencer Tracy in the film version. The clip goes a bit funny in the first few seconds but is good thereafter.

8 - Lorca

Lorca - click for a brief introduction to his life and poetryThe Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, although apolitical, was executed in 1936 by Leftists - some think because of his homosexuality. His body is soon to be exhumed with the others who share the mass grave in a national attempt to "unblock" memories about the Civil War that some would prefer to remain blocked. Here's Leonatd Cohen's interpretation of Lorca's Pequeño vals vienés - Take this Waltz.

7 - CS Lewis

click to go to the Narnia websiteBrooke Fraser is a New Zealand artist who sings songs with a Christian theme and has championed childrens' causes in Rwanda, Tanzania and the Phillipines. Here she reflects on the themes of CS Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: "If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy/I can only conclude that I was not made for here/If the flesh that I fight is at best only light and momentary..." This is CS Lewis Song, from 2008:

6 - The Taming of the Shrew

How could I only have one mention of Shakespeare, and that a questionable one? Kiss me Kate is a play-within-a-play, the play within being the above-mentioned. Here, the former ladies' man Petruchio (Howard Keel) regrets forgetting the adage that you should be careful what you wish for - which in his case was his wife's dowry. (But it ends well - honest!) Lyrics are by Cole Porter, with André Previn helping out with the arrangement.

5 - God is dead?

Thankfully, God outlived His obituary as written by Friedrich Nietzsche in the words Arthur Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey also used Strauss's pieceabove minus the questionmark, which I inserted because sometimes it's just cool to be post-ironic. The obituary appeared several times through Nietsche's works, which originally appealed across the political spectrum. He died in 1900, his mental state exacerbated by syphilis. The Nazis, having appropriated his legacy with the help of his sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, built a monument to him in 1938 even as they planned the annihilation of the Jewish populations of Europe.

I shunned this piece for a long time because I thought it was by Wagner, who was much taken with Nietzshe's writings and again influenced Hitler. It is of course the Einleitung (Introduction) from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss - named after one of Nietzshe's works - and the clip is from Jacques Perrin's documentary Winged Migration.

4 - La Ronde

Arthur Schnitzler - click to read Leo Carey's New Yorker article on his stories
Reigen was a 1900 play by Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler which scandalised society for decades afterwards, being about pairings between unrelated characters - first meets second, then second meets third, then third meets fourth, and on until last meets first in a working-out of Aristotle's theory of the circular nature of generation and decay which acts as an allegory of the manner in which syphilis travels through all levels of society and not just the lower classes - hence, ostensibly, the outrage, which was actually on antisemitic grounds.

poster for La RondeLa Ronde (the roundabout) was the title of Max Ophüls' 1950 interpretation of the play in French; although later versions could be quite pornographic, Ophüls, like other film-makers of his generation, trusted his adult audience to be able to guess what was being alluded to. In the clip Anton Walbrook, playing the narrator, sets Simone Signoret as the Prostitute off from the fairground roundabout and at 2:37 breaks avuncularly into Tournez, tournez, mes personnages - the last word means "actors", but I think it would be fair to translate the phrase as "around you go, my archetypes!".

book cover of Exodus - click to read a bio of Leon Uris3 - Exodus

Two books for one here - the song Exodus was Leon Uris' 1958 novelisation of the postwar founding of the state of Israel, and the clip pays tribute to various actors who have portrayed characters - notably Moses - in film versions of the story of the Exodus from Egypt taken from the Hebrew Testament book of the same name.

2 - Trees

Arthur Tracy, the Street Singer, who sang comfortably into his 80sTrees by (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer was the first poem my Mum learnt at school. I love the conclusion - Poems are made by fools like me/but only God can make a tree. Here it's sung by Arthur Tracy - "The Street Singer" - one of the artists she listened to as a child.

1 - Wannabe a writer?

There are several theories going around about the inspiration for this song. In an interview with the BBC about 7 years ago, Paul McCartney said he'd just read an interview in the paper with Martin Amis, who said he wanted to be published so eagerly that he'd write for nothing. But Martin Amis' first novel was in 1973, so I wonder if McCartney had meant to say's been a heavy old journey; relax and enjoy the song!

Related posts: click here for more top ten songs about...
The rhythms of lives


  1. As usual, I can't play these, but I wonder if you care for Kate Bush doing Wuthering Heights?

  2. One of my favourite songs! I was also thinking of "To Tame a Land" by Iron Maiden (about the sci-fi novel "Dune" and Rush's "Rivendell" ("Lord of the Rings"), but I'd only allowed myself ten slots! There was also Barclay James Harvest's retelling of the Gospel Story, "Hymn", but I've already used that in another post.

    Another thing I forgot to put in at the top of the post was, "Sorry, Pam!"

    I was also sorry to see on Linda's blog that you were having a hard time - how are you feeling?

  3. I'm okay, thanks. Mostly, I'm recovering from an auto accident. The car's a goner. Sigh.

    Re #10, I thought of the version of Romeo & Juliet with the song that goes

    "So dies a rose.
    So dies the fairest maid."

    I can't think of the name of it.

  4. YIKES! Are you badly hurt?

    Are you thinking of Nino Rota's score for Zefirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet - words by Eugene Walter, "What is a Youth?" I didn't know of its existence until you brought it to my attention!

    What is a youth? Impetuous fire.
    What is a maid? Ice and desire.
    The world wags on.

    A rose will bloom
    It then will fade
    So dies a youth.
    So dies the fairest maid.

    Comes a time when one sweet smile
    Has its season for a while...Then love's in love with me.
    Some they think only to marry, Others will tease and tarry,
    Mine is the very best parry. Cupid he rules us all.
    Caper the cape, but sing me the song,
    Death will come soon to hush us along.
    Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall.
    Love is the pastime that never will pall.

    Sweeter than honey...and bitter as gall
    Cupid he rules us all

  5. That's the one! I don't think I've heard it for 30 years!

    No I'm okay. Jammed shoulder, jammed thumb, sore wrist - I think I got off pretty easy. But I hate buying cars.


Please feel free to leave a comment - Frugal Dougal.