In Sweet Music Is Such Art:
Songs Inspired By Shakespeare, Covered In Folk

Teaching Romeo and Juliet to my inner-city ninth graders this past year was an uphill battle with multiple casualties, but I’m quite proud of how effective we found it to start outside the text, with a week-long exploration of pop and mass culture referents, the better to understand which elements of story and structure, character and cast we westerners are expected to retain into adulthood. Indeed, our very first day featured a side-by-side comparison of Taylor Swift’s Love Story and Dire Straits Romeo & Juliet – perhaps the two most currently recognizable songs in the canon based on the works of William Shakespeare, both of which we featured, covered in folk, a year ago today, in fact, in a feature that explored songs inspired by literature.

But Shakespeare is one of those things that sticks in the heart, and the ears. And so, when the offer to play a Shakespearean villain came along, I couldn’t say no, what with the language and trope of the Bard still echoing in my head from the end of Spring semester.

If blogging has become a bit erratic this summer, then, it’s because I’m spending my evenings and afternoons deep in the throes of blocking rehearsals and line-review for an upcoming in-the-park production of As You Like It, Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy of crossdressing and the limitations of courtly life. Treading the boards – okay, the lawn – is overwhelming, and our production is bare-bones, with each actor playing multiple roles, just as it would have been in Shakespeare’s own day, leaving us all struggling into the night to memorize lines, capture the essence of our various characters, and be ready for an audience after just a dozen rehearsals.

My cup runneth over: with iambs and courtly speech, bawd and Bard. And as my cup, so is my heart, and my ears. Of such a mindset is thematics born.

Happily, The Bard’s influence on all facets of our cultural conversation goes far beyond the story of two star-crossed lovers. From linguistic shards to touchstones of trauma and the human condition, this single playwright has functioned as muse and model for a myriad of songs from across the various genres, most especially the folk, rock, and alternative camps, which rest upon literate songsmithing. Masters of songcraft, From Elton John to Elvis Costello, from John Cale to Louden Wainwright III, from Rush to The Tragically Hip, have pulled their inspiration from the master of stagecraft.

And though not all have been covered yet – Cale and Costello’s separate treatments of Macbeth and his lady, especially, seem to have remained untouched by gentle tribute, as do Wainwright’s Prince Hal’s Dirge, and a plethora of songs which reference Lear’s daughter Cordelia – there is fertile ground enow in these works for a setlist of Shakespearean worth. As always, if you’ve got a track to add or recommend, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.

  • Tiffany Jo Allen: Love Story (orig. Taylor Swift)
    A post-millennial companion piece to Knopfler’s dark, brooding portrayal, Taylor Swift’s first-person portrayal of Juliet white-washes the innocent 13-year-old of the original, aging her into a somewhat less naive yet hyperfeminine empower-puff, reframing her in the common misunderstandings of post-feminist pop, happy ending and all. If you can get past the Karaoke covers, the YouTube kids are all over this one.
  • Mark Erelli: Ophelia (orig. The Band)
    Because Shakespeare’s most recognizable characters come with baggage, their names make excellent framing devices for narrative players of depth and substance. The Band’s Ophelia, for example – recorded by Mark Erelli in honor of Levon Helm’s recent passage – rings of the same unspoken mysteries which cloister her namesake.
  • Alice Ripley & Jesse Harris: Ariel (orig. October Project)
    Celtic-influenced new age band October Project made an excellent choice in soliciting award-winning musicians Alice Ripley and Jesse Harris to cover this song when they released their own album of covers in 2008. Though not as well known in the pantheon of American music, this wish-fulfillment retelling of the Tempest from the perspective of its most famous airy sprite – trapped, alone, and drowning in power – remains one of the band’s greatest creations.
  • Eric Lumiere: Sigh No More (orig. Mumford & Suns)
    Perhaps the newest of our thematic originals, this recent recasting of Sigh No More, Ladies, aka Hey Nonny Nonny, a song originally included in the text of Much Ado About Nothing, seems to echo of Claudio’s development throughout the play. Eric Lumiere’s cover starts thick with harmonies and acoustic strings, so we’ll make allowances for the way it turns to pretty pop as it reaches crescendo.
  • Chris Smither: Desolation Row (orig. Bob Dylan)
    Though Dylan’s lyrics are often cryptic, his references inevitably cover the gamut: the collage of cultural touchstones here includes both Romeo and Ophelia, ensnared together in disparate verses that reverse the typical placement of male and female in the balcony scene. And doesn’t Chris Smither wear their weary sorrow well?
  • David Scott Crawford: The King Must Die (orig. Elton John)
    Elton John references the kings and princes of multiple plays in his treatise on Shakespearean inevitability, from Julius Caesar to Macbeth and Hamlet. Again, nary a studio cover to be found, despite the song’s appearance on Sir John’s self-titled, Grammy nominated 1970 debut, but this solo YouTube take is suitably majestic.
  • Glen Phillips and Chris Thile: Exit Music (For A Film)
  • Maigin Blank: Exit Music (For A Film) (orig. Radiohead)
    Written for the closing credits of Baz Luhrman’s disastrous post-modern setting of the Romeo & Juliet story (but never used there, which keeps it pure), Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke claims the song was predominantly influenced by both the original text and Zeffirelli’s much more textually resonant film adaptation. Toad The Wet Sprocket lead singer Glen Phillips and Punch Brothers centerpiece Chris Thile bring slow angst to the song in concert; Maigin Blank‘s echoey harpsichord-driven home studio cover creeps forward quite appropriately.

[Download the entire 14 song set as a zip file!]

Category: Theme Posts 4 comments »

4 Responses to “In Sweet Music Is Such Art:
Songs Inspired By Shakespeare, Covered In Folk

  1. A Nice Batch of Covers Including…The Indigo Girls Cover Dire Straits “Romeo & Juliet”…Plus More « Rock God Cred

    [...] Click here to go to Cover Lay Down to check covers of Dire Straits gem “Romeo & Juliet” by Indigo Girls, Matt Ryd, Cliff Eberhadrt, Mark Erelli covers the Band “Ophelia”, Dino Pehilj & Igor Golovko each cover Sting’s “Sister Moon”, Chris Smither covers Bob Dylan “Desolation Row”, David Scott Crawford covers Elton John “The King Must Die”, and more… Share this:TwitterStumbleUponFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  2. Jeff Barg

    Really loved this post. I’ve long thought folk was a very potent soundtrack for Shakespeare. His plays were always performed both with and for commoners, and so many of them have themes that resonate really well with music that comes from the people.

    I thought you (and others) might be interested in a show that I helped write last year. It’s a folk music adaptation of Henry IV Part I called “Wars & Whores: The Henry IV Musical,” and we got rave reviews when we staged it in last year’s Philly Fringe festival.

    You can get more info here:
    And you can stream the soundtrack here:

    No straight covers, per se, but we have a talkin’ blues, and both “Call to Arms” and “Wars and Whores” (the finale/title song) call up some some very familiar folk melodies.

    We have plans to perform in MA at the end of the summer. We don’t have the details yet, but I’ll be happy to post them here when we do.

  3. Engin U. Kaplan

    Interesting post. Thank you for sharing the experience.

  4. maine character

    Great collection for the bard.

    A few years ago, when I heard Chris Smithers start into “Desolation Row,” I thought, are you kidding? Who can touch that song? But he pulled it off, and he also recently played it on NPR’s Mountain Stage.

    Dylan, of course, also namechecks Shakespeare in “Memphis Blues Again.” The guy knew who to listen to.

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