Popular Music and Literature

The great literary critic George Steiner wrote that the best commentary on a literary work is not criticism, per se, but an artistic work that is a response to a previous one. For instance, Steiner might say James Joyce’s Ulysses is the ultimate commentary to Homer’s The Odyssey. Popular musicians have likewise responded to literary works in their music. These examples could be used to deepen student perspectives on literary works, or they could serve as examples for students to explore their own creativity in framing a response to a literary work in a musical, artistic, or choreographed medium. Rod Stewart may sing “I couldn’t quote you no Dickens, Shelley, or Keats”–but my students can!

Item ItemKate Bush: “Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush is one of the most literary of pop musicians. She catapulted to fame with her first hit, 1979’s “Wuthering Heights,” a song based on Emily Bronte’s gothic masterpiece.TRIVIA: Kate Bush wrote “Wuthering Heights” during a full moon when she was eighteen-years old. Bush also shares her July 30th birthday with Emily Bronte. Is that Romantic, or what? The song can be found on Bush’s The Kick Inside as well as the greatest hits package The Whole Story.

ItemItemKate Bush: “The Sensual World” Bush’s “The Sensual World,” on the other hand, is a virtual paraphrase of the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which Molly Bloom ruminates upon meeting her husband and falling in love. Joyce’s chapter is deeply beautiful, as is Bush’s tribute.The song appears on the album The Sensual World. This would be especially appropriate for eleventh and twelfth graders, even college students.

Item ItemLed Zeppelin and J. R. R. Tolkien Rock-n-roll legends Led Zeppelin, like so many hippies, had a thing for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Some decent rock-n-roll came out of it–though its literary nature is not always so clear.”Ramble On” comes from Led Zeppelin II. In it Page and Plant do a pretty decent job of applying the story to their music, but some of it seems to stray a bit. With “Misty Mountain Hop” LZ take even more literary liberties–but it’s a great tune! It can be found on Led Zeppelin IV.

Item ItemThe Waterboys and William Butler Yeats: “The Stolen Child” On The Waterboys’ album This Is the Sea, lead Waterboy Mike Scott included his setting of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child.” It’s a beautiful poem and a beautiful tribute; it would appeal to the Romantic in anyone.

Item ItemThe Pogues and Christy Brown The Pogues are the Irish band who took the “bar” part of “bar band” with the utmost seriousness. Their music is muscular Irish folk-punk. They were always a blast to see–so long as Shane MacGowan made it to the gig (he was notorious for missing gigs when they interfered with his tossing back a jar).The Pogues’ song “Down All the Days” is about the Irish artist, writer and quadriplegic Christy Brown. The song was featured in the excellent film about Brown, My Left Foot,” which starred Daniel Day Lewis. The tune also appears on the Pogues album Peace and Love.

ItemSuperman and Pop Music A match made in heaven! Superman and popular music. There are, in fact, too many songs to list here. I include only two, the REM cover of The Clique’s 1969 hit “Superman” and 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite.” REM’s song appears on Life’s Rich Pageant.


Item ItemJust Like Romeo and Juliet The Reflections, a Detroit vocal group, made a splash with “Just Like Romeo and Juliet” in 1964. Doowappy as all get out, it’s a catchy little number. I’ll say that. It might be a nice addition to a Shakespeare unit in high school–if only to see the kids roll their eyes!

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