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The Best Songs Based on Art and Literature
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An ongoing collection of songs that transform, emulate, or shed new light on other works of art—from stories and poems to paintings and sculptures. Send your own recommendation to hello@theatlantic.com and please tell us a little bit about why you’ve chosen it.

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Track of the Day: ‘Killing an Arab’ by The Cure

Reader Marc adds to our nascent series on literary songs:

I only noticed this particular Track of the Day theme today, and I immediately went back through the previous entries to make sure you hadn’t run this one already. The Cure’s reference to Camus’s The Stranger is made pretty explicit in the refrain (“I’m alive / I’m dead / I’m the stranger / Killing an Arab”), but back in high school—when I both heard the song and read the book for the first time within a month of each other—I thought the song was a pretty good distillation of the novel’s central themes. Having read it a few more times since then, I now think it’s fairly superficial—but considering that the boys were not far out of high school themselves at the time, I think it holds up pretty well.

A haunting excerpt from the lyrics:

I can turn and walk away
Or I can fire the gun
Staring at the sky
Staring at the sun
Whichever I choose
It amounts to the same
Absolutely nothing

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

“Speaking of shedding new light on an artist,” reader Diane recommends a song by Don McLean:

“Vincent” is often known by its first line, “Starry starry night,” after Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting. While the lyrics contain references to many of the artist’s other works—“morning fields of amber grain,” “flaming flowers that brightly blaze,” and more—I think it’s safe to say The Starry Night is the one work of art that the song best sums up. The unfurling swirls of color in the painting are mirrored by the movements of a wistful melody that seems to ask a question in each line, and the notes of McLean’s acoustic guitar capture the rippling texture of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes.

Update: I set out in writing this note to recommend a musical take on a visual artist, but reader Dave does me one better, with a song that “‘sheds new light’ on that under-appreciated folk singer and songwriter, Don McLean”:

“Vincent” was actually one of his only two songs that broke through into the pop charts.  (The other was “American Pie.”) If you’d like a much more obscure track that highlights McLean’s writing talents even more effectively than “Vincent,” try listening to a poignant little ditty that will remind you of the “Mr. Cellophane” song from the musical Chicago.  It’s called “Circus Song.”

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

This song from jazz singer Kurt Elling “has been captivating me since I first heard it in 1999,” says reader Shana:

I had heard a different Elling song on the radio, and I went out and bought his Live album, recorded at the Green Mill in Chicago. The album included “My Foolish Heart,” an old standard and what has become one of my very favorite Elling songs. But Kurt frequently changes standards, adds to them, reinvents them ... which is what he did with this one. When I heard his version, I had no idea that he was including writing from St. John of the Cross. (I am so not religious, and when I was “religious,” if you could call it that, it was Jewish, and I was a child). I just fell in love with the song, the way he sang it, the emotive quality, the words and lyrics, and, not least, his astounding voice.

I’m including a link to an article written by someone who probably knows a little more than me about ancient Christian mysticism, and religion in general. Enjoy!

Here’s that someone, Mark Gauvreau Judge:

Halfway through the song, the band drifted into one of those breaks that jazz bands do, where everyone gets a chance to play a little solo. Then Hobgood’s piano drifted off, and all that was left was the low throb of the bass and drums. Elling began to sing in his five–octave baritone:

Reader Max calls my attention to a classic I hadn’t yet read—or heard:

What of Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 626-line tale of a cursed sailor’s sin and redemption is a lot to take in, I soon discovered, if you haven’t read it before. Luckily, bass player Steve Harris’s lyrics provide a pretty straightforward summary, and the music—shifting from shouted lyrics and frantic guitars as Death descends on the mariner’s ship, to a spooky, atmospheric section that recalls a glassy sea—helps to dramatize the mariner’s story. Heavy metal and Romantic poetry might seem like an unlikely combination, but the noise, the drama, and the driving beat of Iron Maiden’s interpretation feel right for Coleridge’s horror story—most of all because they capture the urgency of a curse that forces the mariner to tell his tale, as the song repeatedly puts it, “on and on and on.” Update from Max:

I would have written something about how the track led me to Coleridge, culminating in a hard slog of a course on 17th-century British literature; about how Iron Maiden always managed to throw a bit of history or literature on the albums back in the ’70s and ’80s, and how it led to greater discovery; or how my friends always thought that “Rime” was kind of the worst Iron Maiden song, but it was my favorite. But, it’s fiscal year closeout here at my office, and so really nuts.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A reader, Malcolm Morris, writes:

Hello, and greetings from Hong Kong. You asked about a piece of “music that transforms, or emulates, or sheds new light on a different work of art.” One such is David Gilmour (vocalist and guitarist in Pink Floyd) singing Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” Everything about the recording is sublime, from the lyrics to Gilmour’s voice to the simple piano arrangement to the location. It was recorded on a century-old houseboat on the River Thames at Hampton, which Gilmour transformed into a fantastic recording studio.

I first heard the song a few years ago and listened to it so often that to this day I can recite the entire sonnet while mentally humming along with the song in my head. It also reintroduced to me to Shakespeare’s poetry, which I had largely ignored in the 30 years since I was required to read it when I was a teenager.

I wish I’d known about this song when I, too, was studying Shakespeare’s sonnets as a teenager. On top of the sheer beauty of Gilmour’s recording, the melody helps reveal some of the sonnet’s structural elements. That moment when he pitches his voice up on “But thy eternal summer”? That’s the volta, or turn, at which the sonnet begins to shift from its initial argument toward a final conclusion. In this case, the conclusion is that the sonnet itself, unlike a brief summer day, will live on forever—and in giving the poem a new life through music, Gilmour has certainly helped.

Update: Malcolm also flags an album, When Love Speaks, that includes dramatic readings and some musical recordings of more than 50 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You can find it here.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Last week, I premiered “Chicago,” a new track from David Nagler’s new album of poems using Carl Sandburg’s poetry as lyrics. A reader, James Parsons, wrote me about another band, which took not just a name but also some song titles from the famous opening lines of the same poem Nagler used, which deem the city

Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders.

Here’s James:

Your entry immediately brought to mind one of my favorite-ever bargain-bin cassette finds, the album Big Shoulders by Chicago blues-rock-polka outfit Big Shoulders. Instrumental tracks end each side of the album (this is how old I am, albums … and sides!), side one with “Big Shoulders” (they really, really milked that moniker for all it was worth) and side two with “Shoulder Suite” [embedded below], which I think I like a little better, but that’s today.

Obviously their whole thematic existence is heavily informed by Sandburg’s poem, and I’ve always run the opening stanza through my head whenever listening to either track. They’re also equally excellent to play on the car stereo as you take any expressway into the city or tool down Lake Shore Drive.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Earlier this week, my colleague David featured the premiere of “Chicago” by David Nagler—a track from an album based on the poems of Carl Sandburg. To me, turning a poem into a song seemed like the ultimate cross-genre cover—a jump not just to a new musical style, but to an entirely different art form. So I put out a call in our daily newsletter for more songs based on works of literature or visual art. Keith Wells delivers:

In the mid-’70s, Ambrosia had a minor hit with “Nice, Nice, Very Nice,” with lyrics adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle (he, of course, shared a writing credit for the song).  In high school, I was a huge Vonnegut fan and thought it was crazy when I heard the song for the first time.  It helped that I immediately liked the song on its own merits.

Apparently, Vonnegut did too. Keith quotes a letter Vonnegut wrote to the band in January 1976:

I was at my daughter’s house last night, and the radio was on. By God if the DJ didn’t play our song, and say it was number ten in New York, and say how good you guys are in general. You can imagine the pleasure that gave me. Luck has played an enormous part in my life. Those who know pop music keep telling me how lucky I am to be tied in with you. And I myself am crazy about our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn’t I be?  This much I have always known, anyway: Music is the only art that’s really worth a damn. I envy you guys.

Do you know a piece of music that transforms, or emulates, or sheds new light on a different work of art? Please send it our way: hello@theatlantic.com.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Poetry, like music, lends itself to epiphanies—those moments where a piece of art that might have previously seemed inert suddenly seems to connect. For David Nagler, it was the music of Randy Newman that helped him appreciate Carl Sandburg’s poetry.

Both Newman and Sandburg might be seen as bards of American cities—Sandburg with his famous poems about Chicago, Newman with his barbed paeans to Los Angeles, Baltimore, Cleveland. But it was the characters that did it. Reading Sandburg’s “Mag” in Evanston, Illinois, where Nagler went to college, the “down on his luck, at the end of his rope” narrator reminded Nagler of the characters on Newman’s Good Old Boys.

That was two decades ago. Now, Nagler is releasing an album called Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, inspired by Sandburg’s book by that title and featuring guests including Jeff Tweedy and Robbie Fulks. This is the premier of “Chicago,” based on one of Sandburg’s best-known poems (you can read the text here):

It’s easy to see the allure of Sandburg’s poems for an artist—they are full of powerful images and lyrical passages. It’s equally easy to see the challenge, too: They don’t rhyme and seldom stick to regular structures that would make them easily adaptable.