Musicians seem to find inspiration in all sorts of places, and especially books. We’ve found that songs often contain subtle (and sometimes even obvious) literary references—from beloved children’s classics to ancient mythology to short stories, and more. So, here are 10 of the best songs with literary allusions.
Reference: Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Brandi Carlile has often talked about her admiration for the southern-gothic author. On her fifth studio album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, his influence can be found. In “The Things I Regret,” Carlie sings, “When you’re wearing on your sleeve / all the things you regret / you can only remember what you want to forget.” In McCarthy’s most well known novel, The Road, he writes, “You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.”
Reference: James Baldwin, The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Although singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein is a writer herself, it’s clear she knows poignant writers when she reads them. On her band Sleater-Kinney’s latest album, No Cities To Love, they give a shout out to James Baldwin. In “A New Wave,” Brownstein sings, “But I wanna gotta go the way my blood beats,” which refers to Baldwin’s famous Village Voice interview with Richard Goldstein. In the interview, he says, “You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”
Reference: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
This entire song is an allusion to Exupéry’s The Little Prince. The song’s opening line is “You have tamed me / now you must take me,” which alludes to the tumultuous relationship between the prince and the flower. The song’s title also is a reference to the baobab tree, whose seeds the prince has to constantly pick before they grow and ruin his planet.
Reference: Greek Mythology
The Indigo Girls are masterful lyricists, but what more would you expect from two English majors? The duo’s entire discography is embedded with literary allusions, but this one references to the downfall of Achilles, the Trojan warrior who was brought down by an arrow into his ankle. The duo describes the captivating power of passion, singing, “As I burn up in your presence / And I know now how it feels / to be weakened like Achilles / with you always at my heels.” Now that’s a metaphor.
Reference: John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The Boss’ music often provides commentary reflecting the political landscape of the country and this track from 1995 is no different. Springsteen eloquently compares the problems at the time to those of the Great Depression, using the classic Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath as the setting. He talks about “patrol choppers” and “families sleeping in cars,” which are modern-day problems comparable to those experienced by the Joads.
Reference: Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Ryan Adams doesn’t explicitly reference The Sun Also Rises, but the song explores similar themes that are found in the book. In Hemingway’s story, sex becomes a tool for manipulation and empowerment, which creates numerous problems for the characters. Adams’ song finds the narrator at the end of a relationship, which he sums up in the refrain, “The sun rises / but the sun also sets.” The song’s name is also a play on words to the novel’s title, focusing more on a negative outlook than what Hemingway’s title does.
Reference: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia tells Gilead, “There is more than one kind of freedom…freedom to and freedom from.” In “Sprinter,” Torres sings, “There’s freedom to and freedom from / Dream of the one from everyone.” Mackenzie Scott, who performs under the moniker of Torres, has openly talked about her love for Atwood, which you can read about here.
Reference: Flannery O’Connor, “The River”
This PJ Harvey song tells the same tale of the Flannery O’Connor short-story, “The River.” In the story, Bevel is told that if he lays his pain in the river and is baptized, he will finally find the acceptance that he seeks. The British musician echoes O’Connor almost verbatim: “Throw your pain in the river / Leave your pain in the river / to be washed away slow.” Like O’Connor, Harvey is known for her sophisticated and poetic prose, which can be both beautiful and haunting.
Reference: Homer, The Odyssey
With “Calypso,” Suzanne Vega sings from the perspective of the nymph that lured the Greek hero Odysseus astray. Vega’s account examines the relationship from Calypso’s point-of-view, which has become ignored and often villainized. The instrumentation also mirrors to the playing of a loom, the very instrument that Calypso used to lure in Odysseus.
Reference: J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
The British singer/songwriter sings this song from the perspective of Wendy, the beloved character from Barrie’s Peter Pan. But unlike the Disney classic, all is not pixie dust and magic here. We see Wendy older and disillusioned with Peter’s antics: “Peter, can I go back home / I flew here under false pretense / I thought it would be fun.” It’s a beautiful song that adds a new interpretation to the well-loved literary classic.