Monday, September 1, 2008

Of, From, and About Literature: Literary Music

Many people might initially resist the idea of an entire genre of music called "literary music," but I've recently decided that the descriptor is entirely appropriate though a bit tricky to define. One definition of literary music might be music that draws directly from literature. Perhaps the first example of this type of literary music that I came across was Loreena McKennitt's "The Highwayman," which is an abridged version of Tennyson's poem of the same name put to music. There are any number of songs inspired by literature, creativity spawning creativity in a circle of inspiration. Broadway musicals do this all the time, and many of my favorite musicals were originally novels (Les Miserables, Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel) as well as some of my least favorite ones (Dracula, Jane Eyre).

A second type of literary music would be music that is about literature, rather than from it, if that makes sense to anyone. ("Paperback Writer" by the Beatles, anyone?) This would include songs that are about authors, the writing process, etc. In my experience, music of this type is using writing as a metaphor for life in general.

The final type of literary music is, in my opinion, less pervasive as well as more difficult to define. This would be music that is neither from literature nor about it, but of it. This would be music that is distinctly "literary" in its approach to story telling and rhyme schemes, that has a higher level of vocabulary, that reads like a poem when it's not put to music. Suffice it to say, it may be difficult to identify if a song fits in this category, but it isn't as hard to tell if a song doesn't belong. If a song rhymes "you," "too," "do," and "you," it probably doesn't qualify. ("It's tearin' up my heart when I'm with you, / But when we are apart, I feel it too, / And no matter what I do / I feel the pain... with or without you" is not exactly literary.)

My favorite example of this kind of music is by The Decemberists, a folk-rock band from Portland, Oregon. The songwriter for this band, Colin Meloy, was an English major, and his songs are about under-dog characters (chimney sweeps, pirates, and failed athletes) and tell a real story. Meloy employs complex rhymes and meter so the songs, even if you are just reading the lyrics, scan like poems. For example, here's one of the verses from the song "We Goth Go Down Together": "Meet me on my vast veranda / My sweet, untouched Miranda / And while the seagulls are crying / We fall but our souls are flying." If I could write music, I would want it to be like this. As it is, The Decemberists are one of my favorite bands to play on my guitar. You should listen to them if you don't already. (Here's their website:


Chatty Cathy said...

Oh how I miss those days of listening to that literary musical classic "The Highway Man." All you had to do was listen to it three times and thirty minutes when by in no time. I shall leave you now with my favorite line, which I know you got sick of hearing me sing it over and over,"the road was a gypsy's ribbon looping the purple moor..." Ha! I just realized that it is quite funny that I said that I annoyed you singing the song "over and over," when the song that annoyed me the most that you sang was actually "Over and Over."

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

That song wasn't annoying it ROCKED over and over and over and over and...

Homero said...

I have an issue with this idea, and it come from this: you offer no single definition of what 'literature' or 'literary' is, which is no easy task by any measure. So, if I were to offer one (and, what the hell, I think I will!) it would be this: literature is text that is intentionally written and is meant to be read on more than a superficial level. This is, of course, a narrow, flawed, definition, but for my intentions, it works.

By this very post-modern, intentional definition, almost anything can be seriously considered literature-- including music.

Now, moving on from there, I think that your literary music types are too narrow. Let's start with the first one, "music that draws directly from literature." I think the key word here is 'directly' which creates to narrow of a definition. It's a category withing a category: adaptions of literature performed in a manner which differs than the original form. Does this include Iron Madien's (unabridged)adaption of "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner"?
Does this mean that one just needs to turn "The Howl" into an off Broadway musical for it to become 'more' literary? Does the merit of it's literacy derived from it's original form, or from it's performed variation?

Your second type, "music that is about literature, rather than from it" is again, too narrow. The subject of literature, true literature if we go by my definition, than a song can be about anything and still be considered 'literary.' Blackalicious's album "The Craft"
is about the writing process, the source of writing, and performing, but a deeper reading of the lyrics reveal much more.

Your third example is the one that I most readily agree with. Nothing to add there. Nickelback does not fit this definition. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds do.

Yeah, I was bored. Not sure if you could tell or not.

Other 'literary' bands/ song writers:
Pete Yorn
Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers
Dr. Dre
Alabama 3
Neal Young
Black Sabbath
Ben Folds Five
The Distillers
Los Tigres del Norte
Remy Zero

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Aw, I miss you!

So I SUPPOSE the organization of the post could have been better, and I SUPPOSE I could have classified literature a bit better (or at all!), but I still stand by a lot of what I say, with the following modifications. Instead of moving from my broadest classifications of "literary" music to the narrowest, I started with the most specific and zoomed out from there.

I'll (mostly) agree with your definition of "literature," but I think it's more than mere intention to make something literary. (Do you remember the epic that we received in Harvest that rhymed house, louse, and mouse? NOT literary, but it was intended to be). So I suppose there is a certain je ne sais quois required for something to qualify as literary, and, you're correct, Nickelback doesn't have it, no matter how often they re-make the same song with different lyrics.

Had I started with this broad definition of literature and "literary" music ("music that is distinctly 'literary' in its approach to story telling and rhyme schemes, that has a higher level of vocabulary, that reads like a poem when it's not put to music"), I feel that my other definitions of music would have made more sense.

As far as music that draws "directly" from literature, let me clarify. I would argue that many songs and off-Broadway musicals that draw from literature for plot have literary INTENTIONS, but, again, that doesn't guarantee the literariness (I coined a new term! .... well, maybe.) of said musical or song. In fact, a lot of musicals have corny lyrics and pathetic choices of rhyme, so I would say they are not "literary." (I'm thinking of YOU, Dracula! What is kind of lyrics are these: "This is just the beginning, it isn't an end. /This isn't a funeral, more of a christening. / There's no need to wear black. / This is just what I came here for, and the war has begun. / I'm creating my dynasty, the dark side of the sun." Could that be any more emo?)

Even poetry that is about the literary process must have more than intention or subject matter to be literary, I guess, but what makes this classification unique is that... oh, all right, who am I kidding? I suppose I could have cut this category out completely, but I just like music that is ABOUT writing, because (a) there's normally something deeper going on and (b) it combines two of my interests... And yes, before you say it, I realize how lame that sounds. So, fine, go ahead and tear my argument apart, see if I care!

When are you going to start writing in yours, Mr. Homero, so I can return the favor?

Anonymous said...

My friend's grandfather was an english professor and he used to say that Simon and Garfunkel's "The Dangling Conversation" was some of the best poetry he'd ever heard.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I think it'd be neat to put together a book of poetry-esque lyrics, if only because most poets who make any money now are also musicians.

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