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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: ‘Shoulder Suite’ by Big Shoulders

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.