Thursday, May 17, 2007

Musical Literacy

[Posted by reader_iam]

Here is an abbreviated list of authors who have written a novel or novels that have inspired songs, musical works and even albums:
Walker Percy, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, Paul Bowles, Paul Gallico, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Melville, Lewis Carroll, JD Salinger, JRR Tolkein, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Tom Robbins, George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Roger Kahn, Erich Maria Remarque, Miguel de Cervantes, Aldous Huxley, Umberto Eco, William Golding, Alistair Maclean, Thomas Pynchon, Federico Garcia Lorca, Patrick Suskind, Vladimir Nabakov, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Henry Fielding and ... .
Well, I'll cut that one off there. Note that for the purposes of this post, I'm referring specifically to novels, as opposed to works of nonfiction, poems, plays, Greek lit and so forth, though there's also a rich history attached to those, of course.

Here is an abbreviated list of musicians (and/or musical groups) who have been inspired by, specifically, novels:
Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Natalie Merchant, Al Stewart, Anthrax, Glenn Frey , Animal Logic, U2, Warren Zevon, Woody Guthrie, Yes, Iron Maiden, Yo La Tengo, Green Day, Jackson Brown, Jimmy Buffett, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, John Lennon (The Beatles), Radiohead, Roxy Music, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Steve Earle, Sting (and the Police), David Byrne, Don Henley, The Cure, The Doors, Eurythmics, Ambrosia, King Crimson, Leonard Cohen, Blue Oyster Cult, Bruce Springsteen, CSN&Y, Dan Fogelberg, Elton John, Emmylou Harris, Kenny Loggins, Laurie Anderson, Leon Russell, Nirvana, and ... .
The two lists aren't intended to match up, but rather to give a flavor of the diversity of authors who have inspired musicians and musicians who have been inspired by novels. This interplay between artists and art forms is a lifetime fascination of mine; well, why wouldn't it be? I'm a born reader raised by two professional musicians. You could say it's in my blood, and that I was bred to it.

Quite a while back, while researching a related topic, I discovered Artists for Literacy, a project which brings together a diverse group of musicians interested in using music to promote literacy and "literary and artistic" appreciation. These musicians have "donated" songs of theirs which have been inspired by written material--novels, poems, short stories, plays, and various works of nonfiction--to be used in classrooms and similar settings.

One of the handy tools on the site is the SIBL library, a searchable database of Songs Inspired By Literature, which I immediately bookmarked along with the main site URL, and I have referred to it a number of times since. If you're curious about some of the artists--musicians or writers--included in my lists, you can search for them there, since I deliberately restricted my choices to those you can find there. (The one exception is the group Camel, which produced an album "Music Inspired by the Snow Goose," a novel by Paul Gallico. There are videos available on YouTube.) Go play!


Speaking of inspiration, this post was provoked by these two rather extraordinary comments attached to a post here; the larger context is to be found in an earlier post and its lengthy comments section. Fascinating, those discussions, and the rather heavy amount of unconscious irony with which they're laced, don't you think?

There's a lot to be said for using more history and other nonfiction in earlier grades, including "reading" classes, though--given the problems and controversies surrounding text and textbook selection in the public schools--this would pose more of a challenge than I think Althouse is taking into consideration. But to exclude fiction altogether strikes me as a ridiculous proposition, on a number of grounds. Here are just a few of the questions that jumped immediately to mind:
Why either/or? Do we really think one size does, or should, fit all? Fiction has nothing to teach us about real life, the past, the human condition? Kids are going to be magically drawn to fiction if not introduced to it? Reading fiction well just comes naturally for all kids, with no skill set attached to that? Reading fiction has nothing to offer in terms of sharpening analytical skills, including the ability to choose which analytical tool fits a given situation? Cultural literacy has no place in developing minds? What about the fact that many historical artifacts, such as speeches, which certainly qualify as nonfiction in context, make references to literature? Can you truly understand them without a sense of the heritage that inspired them or to which they refer?

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