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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: ‘Adult Things’ by David Safran

A reader recommends “a rather obscure track”:

David Safran is somewhat known in Chicago as both a singer-songwriter and essayist, but he never really caught on beyond our city. Neither did his song—“Adult Things” was self-released in 2009 to not much buzz. However, it feels like a right suggestion since it wasn’t just inspired by Eugene Field, the children’s poet, but written directly at Field’s graveside. Safran wrote an essay in 2011 about “Adult Things.” He mentioned,

The 19th century writer, Eugene Field, is buried—reinterred—in a small, shoddy cloister garden at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois. Once or twice a month, I would travel to Holy Comforter. The parish secretary informed me I was the first Eugene Field visitor in 17 years. I admired his writing, I wasn’t overenthusiastic, but we were both locked away on the North Shore, and I needed a dead literary neighbor.

While there’s an October 2016 Track of the Day based on a Field poem, Safran’s song doesn’t emphasize Field’s poetry but his failures as a local artist—a failure Safran seems to connect with. Though “Adult Things” deals specifically, and explicitly, with relationships (one bold couplet: “Nothing like sex to ruin / a sense of intimacy”), the song ends with its singer staring down at Field’s snow-covered grave, a “work that won’t endure,” realizing he’s aging fast and needs to find, or steal, some lyrics.

Like his song, Safran ended his “Adult Things” essay with this bit about posterity:

Time bowdlerizes everyone, especially Chicago artists. … Yet this gaunt, top-hatted, largely forgotten writer cannot fully disappear into oblivion while parks and elementary schools are still being named after him; while you can still find Love-Songs of Childhood at your library’s book sale; while youngish singer-songwriters still visit his grave: a soft, narrow spot wherein one can stand, or collapse, placidly.

Chicago artists, by the way, were the inspiration for this series—our first literary song was David Nagler’s interpretation of the Carl Sandburg poem “Chicago.” But if you’re looking (listening?) for music about a specific place—a beloved city, say, or a poet’s graveside—we’ve collected some reader recommendations here.

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

Confession: I’ve never read one of Saul Bellow’s novels. (If you’ve got a strong case to make for which one I should start with, feel free to send me a note.) But I’ve been taught by enough people who love him to recognize his monumental place in American literature. Christopher Hitchens wrote about that influence in our November 2007 issue:

At Bellow’s memorial meeting ... the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. ... Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed of non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian Mc­Ewan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal. ...

Bellow in his time was to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer into English (and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish), but it mattered to him that the ghetto be transcended and that he, too, could sing America.

On that note, my colleague Emma has written a piece today about the complex history of Jewish identity in America, at a time when the self-described alt-right movement has given anti-Semitism an ugly new presence in public discourse. Read it here (and let us know if you have a related personal experience to share).

But speaking, as Hitchens does, of singing and transcendence and the translation of art into other forms and languages, I remember being thrilled to discover during a high-school AP English class that one of the Counting Crows songs I’d been listening to on repeat was titled after one of Bellow’s novels: Henderson the Rain King. The song’s narrator is scared, trapped, frustrated, and overlooked, and seems to invoke Henderson as a figure who represents many of those feelings:

Hey, I only want the same as anyone
Henderson is waiting for the sun
Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends ...

There’s a vision of freedom, though, in the wistful opening lines: “When I think of heaven ... I think of flying.”

Back to Hitchens on Bellow, Henderson, and flight:

Eloy Alonso / Reuters

Inspired by last night’s news of the death of legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen, reader Matthew provides a poem and pivots to a song:

Thanks to Julie for her note on poems for getting through hard times. I’d like to suggest C.P. Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony,” translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

This poem reminds me that just because I failed at some endeavor—personal, political, or otherwise—does not mean that I was wrong for embarking on the endeavor in the first place. Cavafy’s poem is a two-fer, because Leonard Cohen adapted it in his song “Alexandra Leaving,” which is indeed how I discovered the original poem.

Lyrics here. Or follow them along with the music:

More Atlantic readers pay tribute to Cohen and highlight more of his songs here. His moodier music actually helped me get through the most difficult and painful breakup of my life, and “Anthem” was essential for that dark blue period. From the lyrics:

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

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

Eva Finkemeier writes:

I love this song by the Simon Sisters, formed out of a famous poem. Carly Simon’s older sister, Lucy, had composed it. For a summer on the East Coast, dirt poor, they performed this in small clubs. The sisters caught on, and not too long after, Carly Simon went solo, finally daring to perform her solo songs.

I like the idea of the Simon Sisters launching a nascent career on the sails of a children’s lullaby. After all the lyrics, from Eugene Field’s poem “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” tell the story of a dream, about three fishermen who “sailed off in a wooden shoe” to fish among the stars. (“Now cast your nets wherever you wish— / Never afeard are we!” the stars tell them.) The poem promises “beautiful things” and “wonderful sights that be”; it’s no wonder the sisters’ audiences were charmed by the wistful tune. Likewise, when The Atlantic reviewed Field’s work in our August 1896 issue, the editors were especially enchanted by his poems for children:

Here the most guarded critic can forget his qualms, and yield himself whole-heartedly to a new and naïve fascination. … One has to go to Schumann’s Kinderscenen for a parallel rendering of the silver-gray phantasmagoria, half dream, half waking gleams and splinterings of fancy, that Field has given us in The Fly-Away Horse, and Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. …

Strangely enough, too, in the handling of these sympathetic subjects, many of the technical limitations of the poet’s gift  which we have noticed are refined quite away. Elsewhere his sense of style is dull or non-existent; here the diction springs new as a flower out of rich deposits of nursery tradition, and the tune, starting with the swing of a cradle or the to-and-fro of a grand dame’s rockerless chair, leaps and lingers and bickers and swirls like the spirit of water. …

It is no small thing to voice the joys and woes of one whole stage of the earthly journey, however short, especially when that stage is full of the most enormous little psychic adventures. This Field has done. He has written the Canterbury Pilgrimage of infancy.

And off the pilgrims sail.

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

How should one aurally mark the occasion of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature? One could, if one was foolish, ask a Dylanologist to name his or her favorite Dylan tune; to do so is to open a Pandora’s box full of hot air. Still, a few nominations would float to the top of the list: the sublime “I’m Not There,” a semi-lost track from The Basement Tapes; a mid-career masterpiece like “Blind Willie McTell”; one of the early landmarks, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

I’m not sure what my favorite Dylan tune is, but my pick for the best would probably be the most conventional one: “Tangled Up in Blue.” (Fittingly for Dylan, an artist inseparable from the great American folk tradition, it’s an opinion I inherited from my parents.) It might, in fact, be the greatest song in popular music.

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.)