Music is Literature, Literature is Music

Photo collage representing Music is Literature

Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? And where does music fit into this timeless question?

In this Pollak Library blog article, Samuel T Barber investigates songs that have been influenced by works of literature and literary authors. So, if you’ve ever wondered what Iron Maiden & late 18th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge have in common, why Beyoncé and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie believe we should all be feminists, or what inspired John Lennon to encourage us to “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”, then read on …

Iron Maiden ‘Rime of the ancient mariner’ (1984)

Iron Maiden represents a cornerstone of British Heavy Metal and their 1984 album ‘Powerslave’ is a firm fan favorite. Its fulcrum – and closing track – is the epic ‘Rime of the ancient mariner’.

The song’s title, theme, and several lyrical lines are taken from late 18th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem of the same name, originally published in 1798. The poem recounts the enthralling tale of a sailor’s long and harrowing sea voyage, told in retrospect after he has returned to dry land. After encountering a ghost and Death itself, the mariner has returned as the only survivor of the voyage, and is destined to live in eternity endlessly retelling his story. All because of an Albatross and a fateful roll of the dice…

Interestingly, this general theme echoes Alan Moore’s ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’ – a pirate comic strip story embedded in the Watchmen graphic novel – which was discussed in an earlier Pollak Library blog article.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the Pollak Library

Beyoncé ‘***Flawless ft. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’ (2013)

It may be no surprise that Beyoncé sees Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as an inspirational kindred spirit. Both have sought to express their feminism in what often remains a male-dominated world. For her 2013 song ‘***Flawless’, Beyoncé constructs a powerful centerpiece around a sampled passage from Adichie’s We should all be feminists – a speech originally delivered at a TEDxEuston event in London, 2012.

The resulting passage is unusual for a big hit (despite not being released as a single, the track even made number 82 on the Billboard Hot 100). A verse flipped by the latest hot MC? Sure. A smooth instrumental break? Of course. But 55 seconds devoted to Adichie’s recited critique of what ‘we’ (in other words, society) “teach”, “raise” and “say to” girls regarding what they should aspire to be and do? This is revolutionary, and its effects were indeed profound.

Not only has the song’s refrain ‘*** Flawless” become a world-wide spoken and sung mantra, but the idea and spirit of what it means to be a feminist in the 21st Century became a topic of universal importance. The film of Adichie’s speech, to cite just one example, has to date attracted well over 3 million views on YouTube – the original live audience consisted of just several hundred people. The music video, by the way, has clocked 39 million views on Beyoncé’s VEVO channel.

This is music and literature combining to devastating effect.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Pollak Library

The Beatles ‘Tomorrow never knows’ (1966)

Of the many hundreds – if not thousands – of psychedelic songs recorded from the 1960’s to the present day, ‘Tomorrow never knows’ remains probably the seminal classic of the genre.

Numerous aspects of the recording of the song are well known. For example, the entire composition essentially consists of a single ‘C’ chord, evoking Eastern drone-based music, and this atmosphere is extended by the use of an Indian tamboura stringed instrument. Engineer Geoff Emerick conceived the idea to feed John Lennon’s vocals through a rotating Leslie speaker (originally designed to create a ‘phase shifting’ effect for organs) in an attempt to satisfy Lennon’s instructions to Producer George Martin: “I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away”. Finally, a cacophony of reversed guitar and custom-made tape loops complete the psychedelic tapestry.

Perhaps less well known, however, is that Lennon’s lyrics are based on a book. Or two books, to be precise. In 1964, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert published The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead – a psychedelic reworking of the 14th century Tibetan Buddhist text Bardo Thodol. Leary’s work contains phrases sung by Lennon in ‘Tomorrow never knows’, including “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying”, “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void – it is shining” and “That you may see the meaning of within – it is being”.

Timothy Leary at the Pollak Library

Tibetan book of the dead at the Pollak Library

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