Literature and music are two very broad categories of art. When the two are combined, they can create powerful and lasting impressions on society and pop culture. Artists inspire other artists, no matter what they create. Time and time again, authors have inspired musicians with their novels and poetry, while musicians inspire writers with their lyrics and instrumentation.
At Bookstr, we’re always looking for fun, creative ways to discuss our love for books and pop culture with our audience. So, with literature and music in mind, here are ten literary pieces that inspired ten of the most popular songs ever written!
The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” – Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
John Lennon was only a child when he first read Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” stories, but Carroll’s work fascinated Lennon throughout his life. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is The Beatles’ third song on their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. While the song was partly inspired by a drawing Lennon’s son Julian made, the lyrics are also reminiscent of Carroll’s fictional world Wonderland, and its main protagonist, Alice.
“Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”
Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” – J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant and lead guitarist Jimmy Page were avid admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy while they were in the band. Several of Zeppelin’s songs name (or refer to) Tolkien’s fictional world and characters. The most recognizable is the 1969 hit Ramble On.
“How years ago in days of old
When magic filled the air
‘T was in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair
But Gollum, and the evil one
Crept up and slipped away with her.”
David Bowie’s “Big Brother” – George Orwell’s 1984
David Bowie was a known bibliophile, so it’s no surprise that his favorite books helped influence many of his songs. One of his favorite books was George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Big Brother refers to the “all-seeing” leader of Oceania in the novel. Bowie actually wrote two songs based on the book: “1984” and “Big Brother,” which he intended to include as part of a rock musical. However, Orwell’s estate quickly shot down his request.
“Please savior, savior, show us
Hear me, I’m graphically yours
Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother.”
Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”- Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls
Many of Metallica’s songs are based on books. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” takes its name from Hemingway’s 1940 war novel. This titular phrase was coined by the English poet John Donne in 1623.
According to Medium, Metallica’s song focuses on other characters in Hemingway’s book, rather than protagonist Robert Jordan. The song discusses the scene where El Sordo and his soldiers combat their Spanish fascist enemies on a hillside. These characters know they will surely die but remain adamant to take a stand and fight for their beliefs.
“Make his fight on the hill in the early day
Constant chill deep inside
Shouting gun, on they run through the endless grey
On they fight, for the right, yes, but who’s to say?”
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – “Sinbad the Sailor” Stories
The One Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights) is a collection of Middle-Eastern folktales that have existed since roughly the tenth century. A tyrannical sultan named Shahryar takes a new wife every night, then when morning comes, he executes her. This horrific practice comes to a halt with the arrival of a beautiful woman named Scheherazade. Each night, she begins telling Shahryar fascinating stories, but always leaves off in the middle of them. She promises to tell him the remainder of each story the next night, so Shahryar has no choice but to keep her alive. After 1,001 nights of listening to her stories, Shahryar realizes he’s fallen in love with Scheherazade and decides to formally marry her.
“The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” is a small collection of seven tales in the 1,001 Nights. The four movements in Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphony are named after major events/themes in Sinbad’s story: “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” “The Kalandar Prince,” “The Young Prince and The Young Princess,” and “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.”
Queen’s “Nevermore” – Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”
Queen’s frontman Freddie Mercury wrote “Nevermore,” which appears on the 1974 album, Queen II. The song’s title is a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s renowned poem “The Raven.” The word “nevermore” is spoken repeatedly throughout both the song and the original poem. However, the Queen song is barely over a minute long and nostalgic-sounding. Poe’s poem is fairly lengthy and complex, and quite sinister.
“Why did you have to leave me? (nevermore)
Why did you deceive me? (nevermore)
You sent me to the path of nevermore
When you say you didn’t love me anymore
Ah ah nevermore nevermore.”
Lana Del Rey’s “Lolita” – Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
Published in 1955, Lolita remains one of the most controversial yet intriguing novels in literature. Nabokov tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who develops an obsession with a twelve-year-old girl named Dolores (Lolita).
Several songs from Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album Born to Die reference Nabokov’s novel, indicating Del Rey’s fascination with the story and protagonist. The lyrics to “Lolita” appear to imagine some of the situations the character in the novel experiences. However, without knowing the background of the character, the lyrics seem to present the situation in a romanticized type of way.
“I want my cake and I want to eat it too
I want to have fun and be in love with you
I know that I’m a mess with my long hair
And my suntan, short dress, bare feet
I don’t care what they say about me, what they say about me
Because I know that it’s L-O-V-E
You make me happy, you make me happy
And I never listen to anyone.”
Alicia Keys’ “Caged Bird”- Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is, without doubt, one of Maya Angelou’s most beloved books. This is one of few memoirs that are hailed as an “American classic.” Keys’ song title and lyrics are directly inspired/taken from the memoir. In addition, Keys’ song is about freedom, which is one of the many profound themes Angelou explores through her writing.
“I know why the caged bird sings
Only joy comes from song
She’s so rare and beautiful to others
Why not just set her free?“
The Lumineer’s “Ophelia” – William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
In Hamlet, Ophelia the daughter of Lord Polonius, and the woman Hamlet is in love with. Ophelia is submissive to her father and brother (Laertes) when they instruct her to spy on her beloved Hamlet. The complicated plot events in Hamlet lead Ophelia to renounce Hamlet’s affections for her, which then leads to Hamlet accidentally killing Polonius. These actions drive Ophelia into madness and despair; she dies under suspicious circumstances during Act Four.
The lyrics in The Lumineers’ song are somewhat reflective of Ophelia‘s (and Hamlet’s) story. The band’s frontman Wesley Schultz also adds that it’s really a song about fame, and falling in love with fame. You feel wonderful when the spotlight is on you, and everybody seems to love you. However, fame is fleeting and you’re only an object of interest for a short time before you eventually need to go on living “the rest of your life.”
You’ve been on my mind girl since the flood
Heaven help a fool who falls in love.”
Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” – Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar
Since One Direction went on their “hiatus” in 2015, each of the members of the band has started their own solo career. Although he was already incredibly famous while in One Direction, Harry Styles has also made a significant presence in pop culture between his solo music, roles in feature films (Dunkirk and My Policeman), and his expressive fashion statements. His solo music is heavily influenced by his favorite rock musicians as well as his favorite novels and poems.
Styles’ pop hit “Watermelon Sugar” borrows its title from a book by Richard Brautigan called In Watermelon Sugar. During a 2020 feature with NPR, Styles confirmed that Brautigan’s book inspired the song. “Watermelon Sugar” first began coming to life in 2017. During a day off from his first solo tour, Styles says he and his band went into their studio. He said the book was laying on a table, and the title caught his attention. The words “Watermelon Sugar” helped him complete the missing links to his song’s chorus. Similar to the book, Styles’ song discusses the “initial euphoria” you may feel when you start dating someone or becoming romantically involved with someone.
“Tastes like strawberries
On a summer evenin’
And it sounds just like a song
I want more berries
And that summer feelin’
It’s so wonderful and warm.“
Speaking of music and literature, did you know that Dolly Parton is writing her own novel with best-selling author James Patterson? Read all about it here!