Dancing with Hamlet – Songs Inspired by Books

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Photo Credit to Eliezer Borges

Photo Credit to flickr user Eliezer Borges

Even on my days off, I can’t stop thinking about books.  After putting my music on shuffle this morning, I noticed song after song making reference to some of my favorite books, poems and plays.  These weren’t simple references to universal feelings, no no no.  These were direct references to modern and classic works.  After doing a little digging, I was struck my the sheer number of songs that were inspired by literature.  Here is a very small collection of examples from my music collection – jump down to the links at the bottom of this post for lists of hundreds of songs based on books, plays, comics and other literature.

Green Eggs & Hamlet by Mary Prankster
Refers to: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Any Dane’ll tell you, girlie
You take a chance with one-night stands
Got a pocket full of posies
And a lily in your hands

Cute little country-punk ditty about Ophelia and her feelings for Hamlet. Great references to the play, including the lyric “get the to a nunnery.”

Ahab by MC Lars
Refers to: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Towards thee I sail, thou unconquering whale
To stab my spear into your white tail
The first one to stop him gets this gold doubloon
Now excuse me while I go be melancholy in my room!

My favorite hip-hop punk artist (or in his words, “post-punk laptop rap”) retells the story of Moby-Dick from Captain Ahab’s point of view. Super-smart and literate lyrics in a catchy song. In terms of literary songs, MC Lars also wrote “Mr. Raven”, which refers to Poe’s poem.

Time to Dance by Panic at the Disco
Refers to: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk
Boys will be boys
Hiding in estrogen and boys will be boys
Boys will be boys
Hiding in estrogen and wearing Aubergine dreams

Anyone that has read Invisible Monsters will notice that “Time to Dance” summarizes the journey of Shannon in the book. In fact, Panic at the Disco has taken inspiration from Palahniuk in a lot of their songs; “Camisado” makes references to Fight Club, the title of “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage” is a line from Survivor, and “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines” uses multiple lines from Diary as lyrics.

Who Wrote Holden Caulfield? by Green Day
Refers to: Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
There’s a boy who fogs his world and now he’s getting lazy
There’s no motivation and frustration makes him crazy
He makes a plan to take a stand but always ends up sitting.
Someone help him up or he’s gonna end up quitting

A song about lacking motivation or seeing pointlessness in the world is par for the course for Green Day, and I’ve always enjoyed that they were able to work in a reference to Salinger’s writings about same emotions decades earlier.

Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever by Bad Religion
Refers to: 1984 by George Orwell
“You can’t win; think it over again
“I can’t win; look at the trouble I’m in
“We can’t win and we’re stuck here together
“Yeah, I hope it will last forever.”

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” is a direct quote from Orwell’s 1984. The lyrics themselves are a retelling of one of the “meetings” between Winston and Julia in the book.

Exodus/”Émigré” by Anti-Flag
Refers to: The poem “First they came….” by Martin Niemöller
This is the second time, we will not fall in line,
No you can’t stop this exodus
No you won’t stop this exodus.

The opening and closing verses of “Exodus” are very nearly a word-for-word retelling of Niemöller’s famous poem. The rest of this song is Anti-Flag stretching a bit, comparing a certain recent government to the one that “First they came…” refers to.

Ice Cream by The Blufs
Refers to: Timequake, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
If this isn’t nice
If this isn’t swell
If this isn’t nice
It’s alright

Of course, I have to include a song by a band that includes a thank you to Kurt Vonnegut for “inspiration” in their CD jacket. “Ice Cream” covers a few of the later works by one of my favorite authors in their chipper, wandering lyrics.

Sidekick by Rancid
Refers to: Batman Comics
I had a dream I was a vigilante sidekick
My name is Tim, I’m a lesser known character
I had a dream I was a vigilante sidekick
fighting crime in the streets together

Sure, Batman isn’t a book in the same sense that the other works on this list are.  And the “Tim” in the opening lyrics is probably a reference to lead singer Tim Armstrong and not Batman sidekick Tim Drake.  Y’know what?  I don’t care.  The song is damn catchy and Tim Drake was a good Robin.

Of course this list misses a lot, considering it is only culled from some music I already have on my computer.  Do you have any favorite songs based on literary works?  Or maybe books based on songs?  Feel free to sound off in the comments.  For a much more comprehensive look at the intersection of music and books, check out the links below.

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9 responses to “Dancing with Hamlet – Songs Inspired by Books

  1. Very cool! I know that I have a lot of book-related songs in my iTunes, but what immediately comes to mind is the album The Hill by Richard Buckner — Buckner has taken the words from Edgar Lee Masters’ SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY and set them to music, and it’s fantastic — a haunting glimpse at lives in a small town.

    I’ve loved this album for years and now it’s going to be reissued on March 10th. For a more extensive writeup, and an MP3 of a song, look here:
    http://www.aquariumdrunkard.com/2009/02/12/richard-buckner-the-hill-reissue-revisited/

  2. OK, I can’t edit my comment, but that is not a good MP3 to judge the album by (it’s all instrumental, while the album is definitely not). But look around and maybe you’ll find some other tracks to sample.

  3. Great post! This is going to make me feel compelled to dig through my iTunes this evening and identify book-related songs. The first one that comes to mind is “Rain King” by Counting Crows, which is inspired by Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. I’ll have to check out a few of the ones you’ve listed here.

  4. This is awesome. The first thing that leaps to mind is “My Baby Loves A Bunch Of Authors,” by Moxy Fruvous (no umlaut, I’m on my phone). But I’ll have this in the back of my mind…

    O! Tori Amos makes a reference to Neil Gaiman and Sandman in “Tear In My Hand”: “If you need me, me and Neil’ll be hanging out with the Dream King.”

  5. ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ by The Divine Comedy, is my favorite – you could also add ‘Three Sisters’ by the same band.

  6. Of course there’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush, but there’s also a more difficult to find album of music based on Neil Gaiman’s work called ‘Where’s Neil When You Need Him?’ (which itself is a line from another Tori Amos song!) The album features a range of (mostly unknown) artists with songs based on novels, short stories and comics by Gaiman. And you can’t forget the whole range of wizard rock – bands/songs about Harry Potter! I’m sure you could find some music based on Lord of the Rings too

  7. Also “Gravity’s Rainbow” by the Klaxons, based on Thomas’ Pynchon magnum opus.

  8. Also, there are a lot of songs by the Wu-Tang Clan that talk about different comics (all Marvel, I believe).
    The band BloodHag is a heavy metal band that bases all of their lyrics on science fiction-y writing. My favorite is the Edgar Allen Poe song.

  9. How fortuitous that I stumbled upon this page. I and a few others are in the process of building a site with dedication to such relevant subjects. As an example, we built this as a fun but interesting way to stimulate readers:

    http://api.bibliofile.net/BibliofileUserWidget.htm

    We’re also in the process of building tools for teachers, which would also hopefully help them present such connections between literature and the rest of the world.

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