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12 Literary References in Music (Where Led Zeppelin and Emily Bronte Meet Flannery O’Connor and Phish)
For those of us who majored in English and want to put our dorky degree to use, we geeked out and rounded up some musicians who showed off their intellectual creativity and included some literary references in their songs. Whether the band just randomly name-dropped famous authors or if they subtly included mentions of an Eliot poem or a Tolkien passage, some of us will pick up on it. And hey, hopefully it’ll get more kids reading books rather than listening to rock music. Er, well, something like that.
Led Zeppelin – “Ramble On”
Written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for the 1969 album Led Zeppelin II, “Ramble On” is another reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s literary influence isn’t surprising to Zeppelin fans: the British band also references the writer in “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore” and also possibly “Stairway to Heaven.” (Funny to think that these hard rock legends were literary dorks, too). “Ramble On” refers to Gollum, Mordor, and the “girl so fair.”
The Police – “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”
British rock band the Police released “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” in 1980. The song, which tells the story of a young schoolgirl with a crush on her teacher, references Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov when they sing, “…Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.” They’re referring to Lolita, the stunning 1955 novel about a middle-aged man who falls in love with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores (known to him as Lolita).
State Radio – “Blood Escaping Man”
State Radio often has politically charged lyrics and not often literary references, but this song from Let It Go pays tribute to Homer’s classic epic poem, The Odyssey. The “wine dark sea” is a line from The Illiad. And, “well the suitors been complaining, it’s a bitter taste of man / I seen them eating and drinking and vying for her hand (some can hardly stand) / I seen her walking too up the widow’s walk / I tell her to keep it on I tell her don’t give up / ‘cause I swear that he’s coming and just wait a little more time” refers to Penelope’s suitors, who have taken over Odysseus’ home while he is gone.
Joni Mitchell – “A Case of You”
On Joni Mitchell’s beautiful 1971 album Blue she references William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, first performed in 1599. Caesar, before his death, says, “But I am constant as the northern star, / Of whose true-fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament.” Mitchell sings, “Just before our love got lost you said ‘I am as constant as a northern star’ / And I said ‘Constantly in the darkness, where’s that at? / If you want me I’ll be in the bar.’”
Phil Ochs – “The Bells”
Phil Ochs’ Bells is a musical adaptation of Poe’s famous poem.
The Grateful Dead – “Dark Star”
Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter had a wide variety of influences in the many songs he penned for the band. Hunter penned the lyrics to “Dark Star” and he refers to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the first lines of his uber-self-conscious poem, Eliot writes, “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” In “Dark Star,” Garcia sings, “shall we go, you and I / While we can?” The connection has been also posed between “Stella Blue” and the same Eliot poem.