5 Songs About Literary Characters

While musicians clearly have a lot of affection for fictionalized characters, they don’t appear as often in song because novels are so complex relative to a four-minute pop song. There’s certainly less appropriation or adaptation than you see on screen. It’s just difficult to distill 400 pages into three verses and a chorus. That doesn’t prevent a songwriter from taking a shot at the story’s essence or core belief, perhaps by taking a different perspective, such as of Catherine’s ghost haunting Heathcliff in Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.”

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What’s nice about literary character songs is that despite the song’s short length, it can reference and explore a well-established story in a much wider, richer and quicker manner. 

1. Samson” by Regina Spektor (2006)

Spektor casts herself as an earlier lover of Samson in this song from her breakthrough fourth album and major label debut, Begin to Hope. She recorded another version for an earlier release, but it never felt quite right. She even held up Begin to Hope while she tinkered with the arrangement “one last time,” threatening to pull the track completely if she couldn’t finish it to her satisfaction. 

The song recalls how Spektor’s character even cut Samson’s hair herself (without ill effect), but she didn’t shave him bald. On the other hand, the love was groundbreaking: ”We couldn’t bring the columns down / Yeah, we couldn’t destroy a single one.” Whereas after the pain of his betrayal and enslavement Samson rediscovers the strength to bring down a temple on himself and his Philistine captors. 

Spektor loves literary allusion. In fact “Baobabs” on Begin to Hope is based on The Little Prince. PJ Harvey’s 1992 song “Hair” is also about Samson.

2. Don Quixote” by Gordon Lightfoot (1972)

The title track from the album Don Quixote became a fan favorite without ever being a radio hit. Much like the 1965 hit musical Man of La Mancha, Lightfoot’s song isn’t a straight retelling of author Miguel de Cervantes’ story. But both essentially celebrate Quixote’s naive idealism in pursuing his hopeless delusions (such as attacking windmills).

The song alludes to the breadth of human experience from those who wear the collar to The youth in ghetto black / Condemned to life upon the street, and connects them with the ever-restless Quixote, wild and free, who truly lives within his own delusion, standing like a prophet bold. It emanates a similar sentiment to John Lennon’s 1974 hit, “Whatever Gets You thru the Night.” 

The song was originally composed for Michael Douglas’ 1969 movie Hail, Hero, about a college grad who goes to Vietnam to win over the Viet Cong with love, not bullets. (Lightfoot instead decided to keep the song for himself.) “I was up half the night before recording that one,” Lightfoot told the Edmonton Journal in 2008. “I would love to have had another shot at three or four of those. Too much partying.”

[RELATED: The Late Gordon Lightfoot’s Final Album Set to Be Released in July]

3. Killing an Arab” by The Cure (1978)

As you might imagine, the title of The Cure’s first single caused quite a stir, and is something they still regret. England’s fascist National Front Party was on the rise at the time, and they seized upon the song as an anthem. Cure frontman Robert Smith wrote from the point of view of Meursault, who shoots a friend’s ex-girlfriend’s lover’s brother in Albert Camus’ 1942 debut novel, The Stranger. The book is about a sense of dislocation and ambivalence in an indifferent universe, and became a key text in existential philosophy.

The song attempts to capture Meursault’s mindset as he walks along the beach beneath a blazing sun, and then commits a somewhat senseless killing. He is “the stranger”—from himself, and from society—for not showing an expected level of remorse. He is incarcerated, though he ultimately finds comfort in the universe’s “benign indifference.” Smith replicates this spirit in lyric: I’m alive / And dead.

4. Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush (1978)

British artist Kate Bush made the charts at 19 on the strength of this debut single based on Emily Brontë’s 1847 book of the same name. The track went to No. 1 in Britain, making her the first female to have a self-written No. 1 there. (The label wanted a more rocking first single, but Bush refused.)

“Wuthering Heights” was inspired by a BBC adaptation of the book. Despite Bush learning that she and Brontë shared a birthday, she never actually finished the novel she’d borrowed from her brother. But she spent enough time with the tome to use several lines from it. 

Bush threw herself into the recording of the single, according to engineer Jon Kelly. “She was imitating this witch, the mad lady from the Yorkshire Moors, and she was very theatrical about it,” he recalled. “She threw her heart and soul into everything she did, [such] that it was difficult to ever fault her or say, ‘You could do better.'” 

There’s probably a limit to how much you can do that. After Bush’s initial 1979 tour supporting her debut album, The Kick Inside, she completely stopped touring and largely quit performing live thereafter.

5. Catcher in the Rye” by The Dandy Warhols (2016)

This loving ode to J.D. Salinger’s famous book features a worthy filmic counterpart that overcomes whatever cringe you might feel about the wholesale appropriation of such an iconic story. 

The video stars Jack Nicholson’s grandson Duke wearing protagonist Holden Caulfield’s trademark red hunting cap, and captures the sweet moment near the end of the story when Phoebe (Caitlin Carmichael) ditches school to run away with Holden (to his dismay). She chases him to a carousel where he buys her a ticket and blissfully watches her go around and around.

Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images

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