I recently performed at the Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio as part of the Big Read series to promote literacy. I was asked to perform and also to discuss the impact literature has on music and songwriting. This following is a brief summary of that lecture and some reading recommendations.
“Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.” – Author Jonathon Lethem
The influence of literature on music extends far beyond what I can discuss here so, for brevity’s sake, I’ll limit the discussion to a few examples and the influence literature has had on my songwriting process.
There may be no more obvious example of this influence – or a better one – than that of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) on Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940). Guthrie met Steinbeck in California in 1939, read the novel, and was so impassioned by what he read he immediately began setting the novel to music. Steinbeck, years later, in a letter to his son, said, “That little bastard. If only he had written that song (Tom Joad) before. He could have saved me a whole novel.”
Whereas Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads is directly influenced by literature – and a grand piece of literature known to many – literature and poetry, more often than not, can inspire a songwriter to lay the groundwork for a new song or inspire a new line the songwriter has been struggling to find. Bob Dylan has often used lesser-known texts to inspire his songwriting, sometimes lifting complete lines from the original work and putting them in his own songs (for which he takes sole credit for writing.) The argument on whether this is an original work of art or not is an entirely separate conversation. Some call him a thief, a plagiarist, and others see him as continuing part of a folk tradition. I see this “thieving” more or less an allusion to a previously written work.
Alluding to or referencing other work is something that poets have been doing forever. It’s a way of alluding to or correcting or parodying what came before. One can hear a stolen line, but it’s replaced by a new context. This is how traditional folk and blues music works because, before the word was written, this music was handed down aurally from one generation to the next. Lines were borrowed, expanded upon, given new meaning. Many traditional blues and folk singers have appropriated lines and melodies from others’ earlier work.
In a modern context, beginning with Woody Guthrie and extending to Bob Dylan, down the line to Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and artists of today like Gillian Welch, Tom Waits and the Decemberists, literature has had a profound effect on turning common folk music into a highly literate form of expression. Which begs the question: If folk music has become highly literate, does it relate anymore to the common people? In most cases, yes it does. True songwriting craftsmen and women will be able to write a song that connects with a broad audience or they will wallow in total obscurity.
Literature is such a tremendous force in my own songwriting that it’s inspiration is often lost on me. When I was a teenager – that awkward era when we are trying to discover and express our own identities – my cousin gave me a novel that, today, is still very influential. That novel, Narcissus & Goldmund by Herman Hesse, still impacts and informs much of my writing. Narcissus & Goldmund is the story of a young man, Goldmund, who wanders around aimlessly throughout Medieval Germany after leaving a Catholic monastery school in search of what could be described as “the meaning of life”, or rather, meaning for his life. Narcissus, a gifted young teacher at the cloister school, quickly makes friends with Goldmund, as they are only a few years apart, and Goldmund is naturally bright. Goldmund looks up to Narcissus, and Narcissus has much fondness for him in return. After straying too far in the fields one day, on an errand gathering herbs, Goldmund comes across a beautiful Gypsy woman, who kisses him and invites him to make love. This encounter becomes his epiphany; he now knows he was never meant to be a monk. With Narcissus’ help, he leaves the monastery and embarks on a wandering existence. Goldmund finds he is very attractive to women, and has numerous love affairs. After seeing a particularly beautiful carved Madonna in a church, he feels his own artistic talent awakening and seeks out the master carver, with whom he studies for several years. However, in the end Goldmund refuses an offer of guild membership, preferring the freedom of the road. When the Black Death devastates the region, Goldmund encounters human existence at its ugliest. Finally he is reunited with his friend Narcissus, now an abbot, and the two reflect upon the different paths their lives have taken, contrasting the artist with the thinker.
It was this journey of self-discovery, Goldmund’s triumphs and tortures that inspired in me the need to write a story-song, one with depth, a history, one that, if written correctly with a singable melody, can explore and expose what it means to be human, to be lonely, to struggle, redeem and overcome.
There have been other books along the way. Everything written by Cormac McCarthy. Richard Ford’s short story collections. Barry Hannah’s Airships. Thom Jones. Non-fiction too. Anything about survival, struggle, man vs. nature. Books on the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl.
For me, borrowing, adapting, or using lines from poetry/literature is a way for me to add another level of depth to the song – to leave another message behind after I am long gone, a puzzle, a secondary meaning, a subtext. I understand not many people will find these messages, my hope is that my children will, my great-grandchildren will, and the song – even after repeated listening – will reveal more of itself to the listener about themselves and, possibly, the songwriter.
Here was the set list from Massillon Museum:
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
The story of the death of Addie Bundren and her poor, rural family’s quest and motivations – noble or selfish – to honor her wish to be
buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi.
“If you could just ravel out into time. That would be nice. It would be nice if you could just ravel out into time.”
1. Eastern Standard Time (Hoover)
2. Elizah Jane (Hoover)
Perfect Storm – Sebastian Junger
The book follows the lives of the swordfishing crew of the Andrea Gail and their family members before and during the 1991 Perfect
“There are houses in Gloucester where grooves have been worn into the floorboards by women pacing past an upstairs win-
dow, looking out to sea.”“How do men act on a sinking ship? Do they hold each other? Do they pass around the whisky? Do
3. Full Force Gale (Hoover)
4. Pickup I’m Calling (Hoover)
Worst Hard Time – Timothy Egan
Worst Hard Time follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl and the
Stock Market crash coincided, leaving the people of the Great Plains pondering why God would permit such a travesity, or, what sins
had they committed that allowed for this punishment.
“If God wanted trees to grow on the Great Plains, he would have put them there himself.”
“The villainous sun and the starved bank did not seem related—yet.”
5. Dead Man’s Shoes
6. Roger Hoover’s Dream (Hoover)
7. Big Road Blues (Tommy Johnson)
Vegetable King – James Dickey
“Just after the sun has closed, I swing the fresh paint of the door, and have opened the new, green dark. From my house and my silent
folk I step, and lay me in ritual down.”
8. Lay My Rituals Down (Hoover)
Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
Tells the story of W. P. Inman, a wounded deserter from the Confederate army near the end of the American Civil War who walks for
months to return to Ada Monroe, the love of his life.
“What you have lost will not be returned to you; it will always be lost. You’re left with only your scars to mark the void. All you
can choose to do is go on, or not. But if you go on, it’s knowing you carry your scars with you.”
9. Girl’s Got A Hold on Me (Hoover)
10. Blueberry Wine (Hoover)
11. Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning (Blind Willie Johnson)
12. The Life We Create (Hoover)
Recommended Books & Music
1. Dust Bowl Ballads – Woody Guthrie // Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
2. Turn, Turn, Turn – The Byrds/Pete Seeger // The Bible
3. Time Out of Mind – Bob Dylan // Dante’s Inferno – Dante
4. Animals – Pink Floyd // Animal Farm – George Orwell
5. Ramble On – Led Zeppelin // Lord of the Rings – Tolkien
6. Morrison Hotel – The Doors // Pugilist at Rest, Thom Jones
7. The Road – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis // The Road – Cormac McCarthy
8. Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen // Complete Short Stories – Flannery O’Connor
9. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – Lucinda Williams // Collected Poems – Miller Williams
10. Complicated Game – James McMurtry // Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry