The Scottish Book Trust recently published a list of songs which have been inspired by literature, as part of their Book Week celebrations. This list includes many brilliant songs and artists including the obvious ‘Wuthering Heights‘ by Kate Bush to more obscure songs like ‘Bell Jar‘ by The Bangles.
Since starting this blog I have made it my mission to analyse such listicles to see how well women are represented overall. In order to defeat inherent gender biases we need to start by identifying where they exist. A quick analysis of this list of 40 songs shows that:
– five are both sung & inspired by women
– three are sung by women inspired by male writers
– two are sung by men about women writers.
– thirty are sung by men about male writers.
I know this is just a throwaway poll but as long as lists like this keep favouring men, women will continue to be excluded from the narrative.
Looking on the bright side, however, that does suggest there are many more songs inspired by female writers out there to discover. Here are ten more to start with:
1) Nina Simone – To Be Young, Gifted & Black
Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry
Nina Simone’s burgeoning interest in the civil rights movement led her to become friends with many powerful creatives of black America in the 60s. One of these people was playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman to have a play performed on Broadway. Tragically Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at aged 34 leaving behind a collection of unfinished writing, which eventually became the basis for this song written by Nina with Weldon Irvine.
When discussing her influence Simone said of Hansberry: ‘Lorraine started off my political education, and through her I started thinking about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men.’ This political education directly influenced her music and performances. The legacy of this inspiration continues, with the song having being sampled or referenced by others including Aretha Franklin and Missy Elliot.
2) St Vincent – Severed Crossed Fingers
Inspired by Lorrie Moore
Having written short stories herself it’s no surprise Annie Clark is a reader of the modern day master of the short form, Lorrie Moore. Her collection ‘Birds of America‘ inspired the St Vincent song ‘Birth in Reverse‘ and my personal favourite from the same album ‘Severed Crossed Fingers.’
Annie said of the song: ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ is a Lorrie Moore reference, from a short story about a woman who reads a story in the newspaper – they’re sifting through a plane crash and find somebody’s severed hand, but the fingers are still crossed, and I thought that was such a great, hilarious, bleak metaphor for life.
Using images and fragments from these stories means the eerie and even macabre feel of Moore’s writing is reflected in Clark’s sound and lyrics.
3) PJ Harvey – The River
Inspired by Flannery O’Connor
Is This Desire? is my favourite PJ Harvey album and many of the songs are directly inspired by the work of Southern gothic short story writer Flannery O’Connor, who was also a major influence on Springsteen’s Nebraska album. PJ Harvey is notoriously reticent about her work and this is an album of introspective beauty whose meanings take time to unravel. However a close reading of the lyrics shows Harvey has used fragments from O’Connor’s short stories as well as evoking their mood in her music.
In The River short story a young boy seeks answers and salvation in a river and is drowned. Harvey takes the central idea that life is a river of pain but weaves a less tragic tale. On this album the song ‘Joy‘ also directly uses another of O’Connor’s stories and Harvey has also discussed how she was reading her when she wrote ‘Down By The Water‘ from To Bring You My Love.
4) Laura Marling – Salinas
Inspired by Elaine Steinbeck
When reading a Steinbeck book Marling became fascinated by the introduction written by his wife Elaine. She was impressed by her writing and also disturbed by the hero worship displayed towards her husband. Why was the talented woman subservient to her husband’s creativity? In it she saw the pattern of many woman’s lives. Using the name of the town where Steinbeck was from as the central metaphor for women’s oppression this haunting song begins: ‘I am from Salinas, where the woman go forever and they never ever stop to ask why.’ Marling’s song explores the narrow roles women have historically found themselves trapped in.
5) Laura Mvula – Phenomenal Woman
Inspired by Maya Angelou
There’s female empowerment anthems and then there’s this song inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem. I think this is probably my favourite song from last year and if you can’t feel good listening to this then you’re probably dead already. Maya would most definitely approve of the direct message of hope and optimism which runs through the heart of this song, taken directly from her fabulous poem.
6) Alicia Keys – Caged Bird
Inspired by Maya Angelou
This song starts with a crackle, like an old record or as if she is singing this down the phone. The simple song is also inspired by a Maya Angelou poem and her memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Keys’ voice sounds angelic, singing of the girl who is trapped but despite everything is ‘spreading her wings in her song.‘ Alicia also recited Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ at the a Women’s March, showing the power of poetry to unite and inspire. Hearing this song makes me wish that Alicia would reject the pop sound and record a more stripped back, vintage sounding soul record with just a piano.
7) Lucinda Williams – Something Wicked This Way Comes
Inspired by Flannery O’Connor
Aged five Lucinda was taken to visit Flannery O’Connor by her poet father Miller. Lucinda chased the peacocks while her father learned from his mentor. This formative experience led Lucinda to have a lifelong interest in the Southern gothic writer.
Lucinda has said “I remember when I first read Flannery O’Connor, when I was 15 or 16, and it just drew me in because I identified with it. Some of the characters in her stories reminded me of some of my relatives on my mother’s side of the family. So I’ve been trying to write about that since I started writing.”
Lucinda has said she often feels like a character in one of O’Connor’s stories and you can certainly hear the echoes of this dark and violent world in the music. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a song that Lucinda says is ‘straight out of Flannery O’Connor‘, with its gothic blues sound.
8) Marissa Nadler – Virginia
Inspired by Virgina Woolf
I stumbled over this one during my research for this post and it was exactly the kind of song I hoped to discover. Nadler recreates Woolf’s suicide, singing of the rocks in her pocket and the waves rushing against her face as she drowns. The lyrics are simple in their shocking power. As she repeats the writer’s name over and over you can feel her empathy towards her muse. It’s a dark nightmare wrapped in a dreamy acoustic strum.
9) Goldfrapp – Annabel
Inspired by Kathleen Winter
Annabel written by Kathleen Winter is probably the least known of the literary works on this list, despite being nominated for the Orange prize for fiction. The novel left an impression on Alison Goldfrapp and has resulted in one of the band’s most intriguing songs, telling the story of a child’s search for their gender identity. Filmmaker Lisa Gunning directed a video for this song and ended up buying the rights to the novel itself, continuing the creative connections between female artists.
10) Beyoncé – Flawless
Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
There’s something so powerful about hearing Adiche’s feminist call to arms in the middle of a polished piece of modern pop music. The fact that Beyoncé was not only acknowledging a female writer but also sharing her ideas with the world in her song was groundbreaking moment for pop music feminism. More of this, please.
Listen to the playlist below (which also includes some other choices). Send me any other suggestions in the comments or message me please as this playlist is a work in progress and any help is appreciated.