How Storywriters Inspire Songwriters

by The Cowl Editor on December 11, 2021

Arts & Entertainment

How Storywriters Inspire Songwriters

Popular Musical Artists Take Inspiration from Famous Works of Literature

Madison Palmieri ’22

From The Great Gatsby to the Harry Potter series, many well-loved novels have inspired hit movies or television shows. Less frequently discussed, however, is the degree of inspiration that the world of literature provides the music industry. 

Some examples of this phenomenon are more obvious than others. For instance, several tracks from famed English heavy metal band Iron Maiden, “Brave New World,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” retell the literary works of those same names by Alduous Huxley, William Golding, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Edgar Allen Poe, respectively. 

Another renowned artist who has adapted literature into his music is Elton John. Like Iron Maiden, John has a song titled “Lord of the Flies.” Another one of his tracks, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” is based on the famous World War I novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque. Although its title is a bit less obvious, yet another Elton John song, “Restless,” is inspired by George Orwell’s 1984.

Similarly inspired by this dystopian novel is John’s fellow musician David Bowie. Three of Bowie’s songs, “1984,” “Big Brother,” and “We Are the Dead,” retell aspects of Orwell’s book.

Yet another famous act was compelled to write a song about 1984: Tears for Fears. While the group’s song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a less obvious tribute to Orwell than Bowie’s tracks, a close look at the lyrics, especially the bridge, makes it clear where the band drew their inspiration for the song from.

British rock band U2 has taken a unique approach to literary allusions in their discography. They named their 13th studio album, released in 2014, Songs of Innocence and named their 14th studio album, released in 2017, Songs of Experience. These titles are directly taken from a collection of poetry by William Blake. Blake originally published Songs of Innocence in 1789 before republishing it with new poems in a combined volume titled Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1794. Notably, like Iron Maiden and Elton John, U2 was also inspired by Lord of the Flies. Their song “Shadows and Tall Trees” off their debut album Boy takes its name from the seventh chapter of Golding’s novel.

Another British rock act inspired by literature is Bastille. Their song “Icarus” retells the myth of the same name, “Four Walls (The Ballad of Perry Smith)” recounts the true events detailed in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—and name-checks the novel’s title—and “Weight of Living, Pt. 1” relates the events of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Also, in a Twitter Q&A, Bastille frontman Dan Smith revealed that the group’s song “Poet” was inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

Folk rockers Mumford and Sons have similarly taken inspiration from sources ranging from The Bard to 20th century American literature. “Sigh No More” is inspired by Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and actually incorporates multiple lines from the play into its lyrics. “Dust Bowl Dance” is an interpretation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Their song “Timshel” was inspired by another Steinbeck novel, East of Eden.

Other notable literary-inspired tracks include “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry, inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” “Cassandra” by ABBA, inspired by Homer’s The Iliad, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica, inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the same name, and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen, inspired by The Grapes of Wrath.

Another song, “Lost Boy,” was inspired by J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. More specifically, singer-songwriter Ruth B. had the idea for the track when she was watching Once Upon a Time, a television series that weaves different fairy tales and similar stories together and places their characters in the modern world.

It should come as no surprise that the artist whose fans have nicknamed her “the music industry” boasts perhaps the most impressive amount of literary references across her eleven-album discography. Indeed, while Taylor Swift’s most obvious homage to literature is her smash-hit “Love Story,” which retells Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and includes a nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the singer’s albums are full of tributes to her favorite novels and characters.

1989’s “Wonderland” plays off of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; reputation’s “Getaway Car” borrows from the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” from that same album name-checks The Great Gatsby.

However, it is Swift’s two most recent albums—rerecordings not included—sister records folklore and evermore, in which her love of literature is most visible. On the former, “cardigan” references the Peter Pan characters Peter and Wendy, “invisible string” gives a nod to a famous line from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, “illicit affairs” paraphrases Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and “the lakes” name-checks famed poet William Wordsworth—who resided in England’s Lake District.

On the latter, “‘tis the damn season” directly incorporates “The Road Not Taken” as a lyric, “tolerate it” subtly retells Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and “happiness” alludes to The Great Gatsby’s infamous green light.

Needless to say, story-writers have provided songwriters with plenty of inspiration across all genres of literature and music alike. Just as directors and actors bring book-to-screen adaptations to life, musicians build upon others’ works and create new and enjoyable forms of art.