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20 Songs Inspired by Children’s Literature (Part 2)

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20 Songs Inspired by Children’s Literature (Part 2)

In 2019 we started a series of blog posts focused on music and literature. Morgan Holzer is curating and guest blogging to add to the collection, and you can read part 1 of this piece here.

Book: Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
Song: White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane
Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall
And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call

The song White Rabbit was remarkably written in only an hour (as per Grace Slick: The Biography by Barbara Rowes), but is arguably the most well-known rock song to be written about a children’s book. It’s also probably the most controversial. Many assume this trippy Wonderland song is an ode to LSD—and in many ways, they are correct. The members of Jefferson Starship were vocal advocates of mind-altering drugs, and were active members of the 1960s counter-culture. Grace Slick was very influenced by literature; she’s said she “had a long-standing love affair with Alice in Wonderland.” 

Slick maintained that the White Rabbit was emblematic of curiosity. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Slick implicated other children’s stories as well, saying “All major children’s books do this. In “Peter Pan,” sparkle dust lets you fly. In the “Wizard of Oz,” they awaken in a poppy field to see the beautiful Emerald City. Our parents read us stories about chemicals that make it possible to have a good time.” In her mind it was no wonder kids were turning to drugs when these were the stories parents were reading to their children. 

Book: Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
Song: Heads Will Roll - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Off, off with your head
Dance, dance 'til you're dead

Sung from the perspective of the Queen of Hearts, lead singer Karen O reportedly once said "I figured if we were going to write a dance song it should be about heads bouncing on the floor and murder and slaughter."

Book: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
Song: I Am The Walrus - The Beatles

I Am The Walrus is inspired by multiple works by Lewis Carroll. The absurd, nonsensical verses are reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland’s Jabberwocky poem, and John Lennon credited Allen Ginsberg’s obscure writing style as a major influence. The song’s title, however, is taken from The Walrus and the Carpenter, a poem in Through the Looking Glass. In a 1980 interview with Playboy Magazine, Lennon confessed “ never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles' work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, 'I am the carpenter.' But that wouldn't have been the same, would it?”

The song is chock-full of other literary references. In addition to Through The Looking Glass, Lennon manages to mix in Shakespeare and James Joyce. (The track includes a live radio broadcast of the BBC’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear; and the line "goo goo g’joob" apparently comes from “googoo goosth” in Joyce’s Finnegan's Wake.) 

Book: Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
Song: C’mon - Panic! At the Disco and fun.
It's getting late, and I
Cannot seem to find my way home tonight
Feels like I am falling down a rabbit hole

There’s a strange ethereal orchestral quality to this duet that makes it seem like it was written for the Disney musical version. Brendon Urie artfully plays the role of Alice, falling down a rabbit hole, and following an encounter with the Cheshire Cat, generally feels lost. Nate Ruess takes on the role of the Mad Hatter, sentenced to death by the Queen of Hearts, literally stuck in time without a proper name. Yet in this world of chaos they are both still so hopeful. Not to mention that if the Wonderland allusions are stripped away, what you have is a love song sung by two frontmen.

Book: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis
Song: In Like a Lion (Always Winter) - Relient K
It's always winter, but never Christmas
It seems this curse just can't be lifted

C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is deeply rooted in Christian theology, so it’s no surprise that Christian rock band Relient K used the novel as inspiration for this bittersweet track. Its title references Aslan, the lion who represents Jesus in the book. The song’s chorus directly points to the main plot of the fantasy adventure: the White Witch had cursed the land of Narnia with a century of winter, endless ice and snow but never any Christmas. 

Book: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis
Song: Narnia - Steve Hackett
Girls and boys who shout come out to play
With a queen cold as ice
You'd best take my advice
To steer clear of her charm

Steve Hackett does a good job of capturing the overall themes of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The song covers its endless snowy winter, the prophecy of the daughter(s) of Eve, and the White Witch along with the many Narnians she’d fossilized. So it’s somewhat surprising that Hackett admitted at the time of the song’s release that he couldn’t remember reading the book. Instead, he said he penned this song with the hopes of capturing images of childhood.

Book: Little Red Riding Hood - Charles Perrault
Song: Little Red Riding Hood - Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
What full lips you have,
They're sure to lure someone bad.
So until you get to Grandma's place,
I think you ought to walk with me and be safe.

This song is sung from the point of view of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. In the lyrics, the familiar line of questioning appearances shifts from Little Red Riding Hood, wondering about her grandmother’s strange features; to the wolf, somewhat grossly sexualizing the girl he is apparently attempting to guide safely through the forest.

Book: The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling
Song: Riki Tiki Tavi - Donovan
Everybody who read the Jungle Book
Will know that Riki Tiki Tavi's a mongoose who kills snakes
When I was a young man I was led to believe 
There were organizations to kill my snakes for me

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was originally a short story in Rudyard Kipling’s anthology The Jungle Book. While Donovan’s spelling of the story’s main character is curiously mistaken, he clearly understands and restates the plot right in the lyrics. Donovan has politicized the story, turning the protagonist into an unwitting victim of society.

Book: Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak
Song: Where the Wild Things Are - Patrick Watson
I put on my wolf suit
And I howl all, all night
I run around and lose my mind
To where the wild things are

The soundtrack to Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are adaptation was completely written and performed by Karen O, but that didn’t stop Patrick Watson from writing something for the movie anyway. He said in an interview with the Calgary Herald that “It was my favorite book as a kid—I grew up with that. That was the purpose of writing it–I didn’t even want it to go on the record. I’d just be happy to be on the trailer, to be honest.”

Book: The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein
Song: The Giving Tree - Plain White T’s
If all you wanted was love
Why would you use me up
Cut me down, build a boat, and sail away
When all I wanted to be was your giving tree
Settle down, build a home, and make you happy?

A quick internet search will tell you that people either love or hate Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, regardless of how they felt reading it as children. (One reviewer on Amazon notes that it should be called “The Taking Tree.”)  It can be read as a beautiful, maternal (or sometimes even Christ-like) relationship, or a co-dependent, narcissistic one; it’s love and sacrifice or dysfunction and greed. Silverstein himself said “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes…. It has a pretty sad ending.” It seems the Plain White T’s subscribe to the darker interpretation, applying the analogy of the tree to a love unrequited. 

Book: The House at Pooh Corner - A.A. Milne
Song: Return to Pooh Corner - Kenny Loggins
You'd be surprised there's so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky 
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh

Kenny Loggins wrote this song (originally titled House at Pooh Corner) when he was about to graduate from high school. In a 2014 interview, he recalled “I was thinking about that last chapter in The House at Pooh Corner. It was the first book I ever read. The last chapter is where Christopher Robin is leaving the Hundred Acre Wood, and he's telling everybody goodbye…. Some part of me knew that I was leaving my childhood behind.” The song incorporated many of the characters from A.A. Milne’s classic—Pooh, Owl, Eeyore and Christopher Robin. 

Just before the birth of his fourth child, Loggins revisited the song some 20 years later, saying, “I wrote that as a kid, and now I have a completely different perspective on it as a dad.” Loggins wrote a third verse, renamed it Return to Pooh Corner, and recorded it as a duet with Amy Grant.