11 Canadian songs that reimagine literature
We look at how Rush, Ruth B, the Tragically Hip and more have reinvented these classic tales
There are some stories we tell ourselves time and time again. Whether it's the romantic tragedy of two lovers being kept apart or a pilgrimage that prompts a coming-of-age, certain tales embed themselves into our collective memories.
Back in March, CBC Music host Raina Douris asked the Twitterverse for suggestions on Canadian songs that contain literary references. One theme that emerged from the numerous suggestions was the idea of reinvention. While we have heard the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice endlessly and seen countless interpretations of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Canadian musicians have fresh takes on these classics.
From Rush to Ruth B, the Tragically Hip to Shad, check out the list below for some of our favourite Canadian songs that have reimagined literature, including recommendations from CBC Music listeners.
'Tom Sawyer,' Rush
Tom Sawyer is the cheeky and fun-loving protagonist of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Set in the 1840s along the Mississippi River, the novel follows orphan Tom throughout his antics — some harmless and others quite serious. Rush's reimagining of the figure begins with "a modern-day warrior," which at first seems far from the original depiction of the 12-year-old boy.
Released in 1981 on Rush's album Moving Pictures, "Tom Sawyer" quickly became one of the Toronto rock band's staple songs. It was co-written by frontman Geddy Lee, drummer Neil Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson in collaboration with lyricist Pye Dubois. During rehearsal one summer, Peart received a poem from Dubois entitled Louis the Lawyer, which became the basis for the song. According to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the lyrics were "a portrait of a modern-day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful." Whether a lawyer or a 12-year-old boy, Tom Sawyer proved to be an everlasting, defiant figure.
'Billy S.,' Skye Sweetnam
Pop-rock sensation Skye Sweetnam burst onto the music scene in 2003 with her debut single "Billy S." The song quickly became a teen anthem, with regular airplay on both MuchMusic and YTV. With its catchy chorus and infectious guitar riffs, the song was a loud call for agency among young people, and it resonated across the country. Throughout the track, Sweetnam proclaims, "I don't need to read Billy Shakespeare/ meet Juliet or Malvolio." Considering how ubiquitous Shakespeare's work is in schools, Sweetnam's rebellious lyrics could be interpreted as a call for a reinvention of the curriculum altogether.
'If Raymond Carver Were Born in the '90s,' Library Voices
This song by Regina-based indie group Library Voices was released as part of its 2011 album, Summer of Lust. Raymond Carver was an American writer born in 1938, whose work, mostly short fiction, was defined by its brevity. He was considered to be one of the fathers of minimalism. Similar to the dirty realism of Carver's fiction, "If Raymond Carver Were Born in the '90s" showcases some of the less glamorous parts of life. While the song starts off after a night of heavy drinking, it quickly takes a tender turn: "Me? I'm still writing songs I'm scared you'll hear some day." While the intriguing title might be what draws you in, the addictive hook is what will keep you coming back.
This song was suggested to us by Jay Onrait.
'Lady of Shalott,' Loreena McKennitt
English poet Alfred Tennyson was a master at reinventing the Arthurian legends of medieval times. Similar to his earlier work, such as Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere and Galahad, The Lady of Shalott revisits the tale of an isolated noble woman. In this lyrical ballad, Tennyson follows Elaine of Astolat on her journey away from her tower and toward her tragic death.
Loreena McKennitt's interpretation of Lady of Shalott was released on her 1991 album, The Visit, which won a Juno Award for best roots and traditional album of the year. From a lyrical standpoint, McKennitt's "Lady of Shalott" stays true to the original poem. The singer breathes new life into this classic, her vocals rising from an airy whisper to a passionate crescendo as she recounts the tale. Take a listen and be transported to the fantastical world of dragons and knights.
This suggestion came to us from Nick Janson on Twitter.
'Courage (For Hugh MacLennan),' the Tragically Hip
Nova Scotian Hugh MacLennan was one of the first authors to incorporate Canadian themes into his literature. The Tragically Hip's "Courage" was not only dedicated to the late author, but inspired by his book The Watch that Ends the Night. The novel's protagonist, the modern-man archetype, wrestled with his own existential crisis while comparing his personal experiences to the generations who suffered through the First and Second World War, and the Great Depression. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Kingston native Gord Downie first read MacLennan's book while touring for Road Apples in 1991. The protagonist's existential epiphany is paraphrased in the chorus of "Courage": "There is no simple/ explanation/ for anything important."
'Fair Verona,' Dan Mangan
It was no surprise that Vancouver-based musician Dan Mangan was invited to the 2019 Juno Songwriters' Circle. For years, he has been expertly crafting songs inspired by everything from personal experience to pop culture. An early example of his ability to reinvent existing narratives is on his 2010 album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, which lifts its title from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle. The track "Fair Verona" is a nod to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where the city of Verona is referenced in the prologue of the play: "Two households, both alike in dignity. In fair Verona, where we lay our scene."
With its many renditions, you might think there's no fresh take on the 16th-century play. But as Mangan notes in his lyric booklet, the play is not only about romance but also "about the impending influence of history in the present, reputations, grudges and fear." The song is a sharp commentary on what happens to those who defy the status quo. In this tender track, Mangan's melancholic vocals coast across the acoustic guitar, punctuated by a swelling brass section.
'Lost Boy,' Ruth B
Since the inception of Peter Pan by Scottish novelist and playwright J. M. Barrie in 1902, the character has remained persistent in literature and popular culture. Rebellious, carefree and overconfident, Peter Pan's appeal is rooted in his refusal to conform and "grow up." The version of Peter Pan that inspired Edmonton-based artist Ruth B is from the television series Once Upon a Time. That particular Peter Pan initially begins as a grown man and is later transformed into a young boy. While Ruth B's rendition of the "boy who would not grow up" is quite different from Barrie's, the desperate desire for immortal youth remains. The ballad "Lost Boy" is nostalgic and bittersweet, the perfect modern take on a classic tale.
'It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus),' Arcade Fire
It seems fitting that Montreal's Arcade Fire would choose to reinterpret a myth featuring Orpheus, the son of Apollo, who was known as the greatest musician among mortals. After a dangerous trek into the underworld, Orpheus is permitted to bring Eurydice back to the mortal world as long as he doesn't look back at her. Of course, since we love tragic tales with a good moral lesson, Orpheus does look back and cannot re-enter the underworld again while alive — and Eurydice is trapped in the underworld. While the earliest renditions of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice come courtesy of Roman poets Virgil and Ovid, Win Butler was actually inspired by the 1959 film Black Orpheus.
This song was suggested by Twitter user @GrenonMark.
'Yaa I Get It,' Shad
Released as the first single off Shad's Juno Award-winning album TSOL, "Yaa I Get It" is a dedication to lineage and a direct rejection of modern fame, money and celebrity status. Shad begins by insisting that he's "on a poet's mission," and follows it up quickly by noting his technical skill: "The precision of my flows in terms of tone and diction/ is akin to that of the old masters of prose and fiction." As CBC Music listener Geoffry Pounsett said, the third verse of "Yaa I Get It" is a blistering and brilliant commentary on how the art forms of poetry and rap are, and have always been, related to one another. "Ya I Get It" is a continuation of this longstanding tradition.
'Time's Arrow,' the Weakerthans
Winnipeg's the Weakerthans are well known for their lyrical literary references, which is no surprise with poet frontman John K. Samson. "Time's Arrow" is a tribute to British author Martin Amis' novel of the same name. Similar to the way the book recounts the protagonist's life in reverse chronological order, the lyrics to the Weakerthans song use a motif of reversed and disrupted time. The relaxed pace of the track mimics the concept of time slowly running out, until the chorus kicks in, asking, "Could we please turn around and around and around?" Amidst the calendars and commas, watches and ellipses, the Weakerthans craft a beautiful, meditative song.
'On & On & On,' Joel Plaskett
This one was suggested to us by Geoffry Pounsett on Twitter, who noticed that there was a tribute to Shelagh Rogers in the more than 12-minute track. Toward the end of the song, Plaskett sings, "Shelagh Rogers/ I like her speaking voice" then again references the CBC host of The Next Chapter at the end of the verse: "Hush up now Shelagh's speakin'/ it's Shelagh Rogers."
Beyond the explicit reference to Rogers, the song itself has many features of a bildungsroman or coming-of-age-style tale. Much like J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye or Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "On & On & On" references a journey that the narrator has taken, beginning with the opening lines, "You have arrived son/ is this the last frontier?" In addition to this, markers of identity such as "Nova Scotian/ that's the blood that's in my veins" appear throughout. Plaskett's song may not be an explicit retelling of any coming-of-age story, but its reference to place as a marker of identity and the overall theme of travelling make it relatable for many young people across the nation.
What are your favourite literary references in Canadian songs? Tweet us @CBCMusic and let us know.