Halloween San Francisco Events
Related Articles: Literary, All

From Page to Stage and Back

Legions of pop stars use literature as inspiration for their music, so it's only fair that a local nonprofit uses pop music to inspire literacy.

When the finale of reality TV show The Bachelor attracts more than 24 million viewers, yet most novels are lucky to sell 20,000 copies, you begin to despair of the written word being drowned in a sea of images and music. Then again, the very music blaring from that passing car stereo could be doing its part to promote literacy.

How many teens in the 1980s heard the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me," a song about a forbidden student-teacher relationship, and were inspired by curiosity, or perhaps hormones, to check out "that book by Nabokov"? (Unfortunately, Sting sang "NAB-o-kov" instead of "Na-BOK-ov" and thus inspired a generation of mispronunciation.)

A few hours of research reveals hundreds of popular -- and not so popular -- songs with literary references. From science fiction to literary masterpieces, recording artists have long shared their obsessions within the lyrics of their songs.

And now they're searchable. San Francisco nonprofit <a href="http://www.artistsforliteracy.org">Artists for Literacy</a> keeps an <a href="http://www.artistsforliteracy.org/famous.html">online list</a> of SIBLs, or songs inspired by literature, as part of a larger project that uses pop music to inspire kids to read. "After people nominate songs, we research them before posting them as a SIBL," says Deborah Pardes, a singer-songwriter herself and director and founder of Artists for Literacy (pictured above).

Besides offering the SIBL database, the organization sponsors an annual songwriting contest that promotes literary songs. In past years, the contest culminated with a CD featuring the winners, as well as songs from well-established artists such as Aimee Mann, Bruce Springsteen, Suzanne Vega, Steve Earle and Roseanne Cash. (Waits offered "A Good Man is Hard to Find," inspired by the story of the same name from Flannery O'Connor, while Aimee Mann found inspiration in the graphic novel Ghost World for her song of the same name.) The CDs are then given to teachers to involve students in books and are also available for sale to raise funds for the organization.

"There's everything on our list: heavy metal, folk, polka," Pardes says. "Some references aren't as obvious as others. Tori Amos's 'Cornflake Girl' was inspired by Beloved by Toni Morrison, but you would never know that without hearing it from her. Then sometimes you think a song is a SIBL but isn't. Sheryl Crow's 'Leaving Las Vegas' wasn't inspired by the novel at all."

This year, the contest winners will be announced August 1, with MP3s available for teachers to download when school starts in September.

A stroll through the SIBL database shows the Cure is one of the most literate rock bands, with over 15 songs inspired by books. In fact, three Cure songs reference the same book, Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes. Some references aren't obscure at all. Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights," 10,000 Maniacs' "Hey Jack Kerouac" and Megadeth's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" advertise their references in their titles.

Well before Frodo and his friends became a cinematic gold mine, bands were immortalizing Tolkien's Middle Earth in their songs. Both Led Zeppelin and Rush have been inspired by the Lord of the Rings series. In "Ramble On," Robert Plant, who in the early-'70s era of leather vests and hairy chests could have passed for a Hobbit, inserts himself and a fair maiden into Frodo's adventure:

"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."

Rush took the rock-nerd factor further with "2112," a song inspired by Ayn Rand's novel Anthem and its anti-communist message:

"We've taken care of everything
The words you hear, the songs you sing
The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes.
It's one for all and all for one."

The SIBL list is the ultimate parlor game, but the more serious mission of Artists for Literacy started when Pardes wrote a song inspired by Frank McCourt's bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes:

Mom makes the tea, Mom fries our last piece of bread
I lay very still here inside my head
Mom feeds the baby milk from her breast
I see she is sad 'cause she can't feed the rest

But me and my brothers - we're doing OK
The house has got holes - the rain came in today
Upstairs we call Italy and Ireland's below
And on the 7th step between them is where the angels go

"We think of the songs as trailers for books, just as movies have trailers," says Pardes. "These songs can be used as tools to build bridges to reading. It's intimidating to start a book for some young people."

From a quick search for SIBLs in this year's Billboard top 100, it seems 2004 is a nadir for literary songs. I could be missing something deeper in such hits as "Dude" or "Redneck Woman," or in a great example of imaginative punctuation, "Yeah!" and its verse, "(Yeah!!) yeah yeah (yeah!) yeah yeah - yeah!" At least there's a dandy of a simile in OutKast's Grammy-winning "Hey Ya." Andre 3000's mistress's eyes may be nothing like the sun, but she sure can shake it, shake it like a Polaroid picture.