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June 30, 2017 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Earlier this week there was a post on the Blue featuring Ben Folds composing a new song ("These Spaces Are Designed to be Flexible") in 10 minutes during a live performance at the Kennedy Center. Ben grabbed lyrics from a program handed to him by an audience member. Including a few very popular examples below the fold, what other songs out there use partially or completely "found" lyrics from another nonmusical work?

The best examples I can think of are Turn! Turn! Turn! by Pete Seeger and later popularized by The Byrds (lyrics from the Book of Ecclesiastes), the Voice of Harold B-side by R.E.M. (lyrics verbatim from the back cover of a Revelaires record), and Being for the Benefit of Mister Kite! by the Beatles (lyrics lifted from a 19th century circus poster).

What other ones do you have, folks? I don't know if lyrics lifted from other songs really fit in this category, I'm mostly curious about lyrics taken from things outside popular music like books, poems, film dialogue, etc.
posted by JoeZydeco to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Darren Hayman's chants for socialists turns the 19th century protest poetry of William Morris into songs.
posted by noloveforned at 2:21 PM on June 30, 2017

And Lambchop's "Paperback Bible" was based on a swap shop radio show at the request of npr
posted by noloveforned at 2:24 PM on June 30, 2017

My very favorite one of these is The Presidents of the United States of America's song Stranger where the lyrics are all personal ads from Seattle's independent newspaper The Stranger.
posted by jessamyn at 2:30 PM on June 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

The song that got me into WW1 poetry is the 10,000 Maniacs song The Latin One, based on and slightly modified from Wilfred Owen's poem.
posted by cobaltnine at 2:32 PM on June 30, 2017

There are also some poems that get set to music a lot. Yeats' The Stolen Child I remember for the version by the Waterboys but others have done it too. The Waterboys then put out an album which is 14 of his poems adapted slightly and set to music.
posted by jessamyn at 2:37 PM on June 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sarah McLachlan's "Possession" is reportedly based on obsessive fan letters she received. The fan in question tried to sue her for using his words unattributed but ended up killing himself before the trial.
posted by Flannery Culp at 2:46 PM on June 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Dropkick Murphy's Last Letter Home is composed of a bunch of snippets of letters from a soldier to his family, including the telegram informing the family of the soldier's death.

Jim's Big Ego's Postcard from Cariacou has lyrics made entirely from a postcard he received, concluding with his complete mailing address in Somerville, MA.

U2's 40 has lyrics from the 40th Psalm.
posted by bondcliff at 2:51 PM on June 30, 2017

Obscurish 80s bedroom psych rock Departmentstore Santas' "An Open Letter To Seniors From Mackenzie" is a high school anti-drug speech set to music.
posted by drapatz at 2:53 PM on June 30, 2017

The John Cale/Brian Eno song "Cordoba" has lyrics taken from a textbook for learning Spanish (a section focusing on prepositions, it appears.)

Van Morrison's Piper at the Gates of Dawn has lyrics from The Wind in the Willows.
posted by Redstart at 3:05 PM on June 30, 2017

The Magnetic Fields Epitaph For My Heart has lyrics from a safety warning found on the back of a piece of electrical equipment: 'Caution, to prevent electric shock / Do not remove cover / No user-serviceable parts inside / Refer servicing to qualified service personnel'.
posted by verstegan at 3:17 PM on June 30, 2017 [6 favorites]

The Highwayman by Loreena McKennitt. The lyrics are from a 1906 poem by Alfred Noyes.
posted by FencingGal at 3:30 PM on June 30, 2017

Phil Kline's Zippo Songs album is entirely based on engravings found on US Soldiers' lighters and Donald Rumsfeld quotes. (And it's surprisingly listenable.)
posted by eotvos at 3:46 PM on June 30, 2017

The Cure's 'So What', from their first album, Three Imaginary Boys. Robert Smith reads a special offer off the back of a sugar packet. Mostly.
posted by srednivashtar at 3:47 PM on June 30, 2017

the bluegrass/jazz outfit The Insect Trust is the only group (AFAIK) to record a song using lyrics from a Thomas Pynchon novel. TP initially sued them but wound giving permission to put it on their second album.

another one that comes to mind - a couple years ago the accordion player Jason Webley released a concept album based on an old diary he found in a dumpster in his hometown in Washington State.

(sry on mobile so no links)
posted by mannequito at 4:02 PM on June 30, 2017

Another Magnetic Fields instance is from act two of This American Life episode I've had Regrets, where there are three original songs by Stephin Merritt with lyrics based on direct quotes from the interviewee. (The first starts at 37:40)
posted by eotvos at 4:03 PM on June 30, 2017

There's a great video with Elton John composing music live to a scene from a random book (Peer Gynt) an audience member handed him on request. Here's the scene specifically, but the whole thing is very interesting if you can find it. Here's another in which he composes music to the words from an oven manual, which someone brought to the event.

Rufus Wainwright has also done several pieces using Shakespearean sonnets. Some of them are collected here.
posted by spelunkingplato at 4:09 PM on June 30, 2017

John K. Samson created a song that consists of the text of an online petition to induct Reggie Leach into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The song title is the URL of the online petition:

It appears on his 2012 album, "Provincial."
posted by baseballpajamas at 4:09 PM on June 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

The title track from Les Crane's 1971 album, Desiderata.
posted by ogooglebar at 4:32 PM on June 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a song called Pursuit of Happiness whose lyrics are taken from the US Declaration of Independence. I have another song called World of Screens whose first line is taken from "1984" by George Orwell. They Might Be Giants have a song called I Should Be Allowed to Think whose first line is taken from the poem "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. Red Hot Chili Peppers have a song called Yertle the Turtle where the lyrics are all taken from the story "Yertle the Turtle" by Dr Seuss. Nada Surf has a song called Popular where most of the lyrics are taken from "Penny's Guide to Teen-Age Charm and Popularity", by Gloria Winters.
posted by 23skidoo at 4:53 PM on June 30, 2017

Not sure if it exactly counts, but Gram Parsons' "Return of the Grevious Angel" was written by a poet named Thomas Stanley Brown who handed Parsons the lyrics in a bar.
posted by jferg at 5:17 PM on June 30, 2017

Song composer Richard Hundley set several epitaphs as art songs, including The Astronomers (very sweet one about a husband and wife), Isaac Greentree, Epitaph on a Wife, and more. There are recordings of people doing these in recital on YouTube.

There exists an art song that is basically a recipe, in German, for a kind of cake called a guglhupf. The song is titled "Guglhupf". I cannot find it online anywhere. It basically starts out "One decagram sugar, one decagram flour, four eggs...." etc. It's fun.
posted by amtho at 5:42 PM on June 30, 2017

The entire musical Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 comes out of the book War and Peace--not all the lyrics, but many of them.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:42 PM on June 30, 2017

Daily grievances never sounded so good... Complaints Choirs!
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:43 PM on June 30, 2017

Talking Heads' I Zimbra is from a poem by Hugo Ball.

If you want to get into the classics, lots of art songs are from poetry. Mahler's Rückert-Lieder are rightly famous, Schubert set Goethe (if you took a music appreciation class in college you'll have heard Erlkönig), Beethoven also set Goethe (Sehnsucht, for example), and I should stop before I fall farther down this well.
posted by fedward at 6:28 PM on June 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh wait, I do have another contemporary one. Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" is Wyn Cooper's "Fun," which (I just learned) made him so much money he could quit his job and … become a songwriter.
posted by fedward at 6:37 PM on June 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) by Baz Luhrmann, lyrics taken from a 1997 Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:50 PM on June 30, 2017

Devo's "Big Mess" extensively quotes a series of letters written by "Cowboy Kim" to an LA radio station.
posted by LSK at 7:24 PM on June 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

List of songs based on poems

My favorite from the list: "I Am Stretched on Your Grave" is a translation of the Irish poem "Táim Sínte ar do Thuama"
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:24 PM on June 30, 2017

Legal Man by Belle and Sebastian uses snatched phrases from their contract with Jeepster, the record label they were with at the time.
posted by greycap at 8:55 PM on June 30, 2017

Leonard Cohen's Who By Fire is based on a Hebrew prayer.
posted by Redstart at 9:04 PM on June 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

According to Wikipedia, Nada Surf's "Popular":

"...except for the chorus, are parts made up from the 1964 teen advice book Penny's Guide to Teen-Age Charm and Popularity, written by television actress Gloria Winters. "
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 9:40 PM on June 30, 2017

The Replacements "Lovelines" lyrics are personal ads from the October 13, 1982 issue of City Pages.
posted by superna at 10:33 PM on June 30, 2017

I can't find anything that attests to this now, but Sonic Youth's "Tuff Gnarl" was supposedly written by cutting up a bunch of clips from newspapers or magazines and reordering them.
posted by invitapriore at 11:03 PM on June 30, 2017

They Might Be Giants had a cassette (either Dylan or Byrds, I'm not sure) that had the album track listed on the back "flap" of the cassette liner, with a curious break in a song name, so Mr. Tambourine Man became Mr. Tambo-urine man. They wrote "Weep Day" based on this, about the two people, Mr. Tambo and Urine Man.

Their song "Why Must I Be Sad" is a tribute to Alice Cooper, and its lyrics are substantially made of Alice Cooper song titles, including a backing vocal which just lists song titles.

Their song "I Can Hear You" includes a number of lines which were taken from various contemporary talking technologies or phrases that only exist because of communications technology, such as "This car is protected by Viper," a verbal car-alarm, or "I'm calling from the plane." (For increased irony, this track was recorded sans electricity using a bona fide Edison wax cylinder recording system.)
posted by Sunburnt at 12:09 AM on July 1, 2017

Not quite what you're asking, but may appeal: the Australian music quiz show Spicks and Specks had a segment called 'Substitute' - a panellist would be handed a text (often something dry and technical), and had to sing it as lyrics to the tune of a well-known song, while the rest of the panellists tried to guess the song. Some youtube clips here.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 2:02 AM on July 1, 2017

Simon and Garfunkel - 7 O'Clock News/Silent Night

From wikipedia: The track is sound collage juxtaposing a rendition of the Christmas carol "Silent Night" with a simulated "7 O'Clock News" bulletin of the actual events of August 3, 1966.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 9:17 AM on July 1, 2017

Peter Rothbart, whose brother Davy founded Found Magazine, has a band called The Poem Adept with several songs based on found notes and tapes. Here's a live performance of "The Booty Don't Stop" with a story about its origins. Here's "The Baddest Nissans in the Northwest." My favorite is "Able Glass Note."
posted by babelfish at 11:23 AM on July 1, 2017

Nirvana - I hate myself and want to die

During the guitar solo, Cobain (very quietly) recites the line "Most people don't realize that large pieces of coral, which have been painted brown and attached to the skull by common wood screws, can make a child look like a deer," which is a line from Saturday Night Live's Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 12:45 PM on July 1, 2017

Dying Is Fine by Ra Ra Riot has lyrics drawn from E.E. Cummings' poem "dying is fine)but Death."

Persian music often uses poems as the source of its lyrics. One of my favorites is Axiom of Choice's Greener Than God's Dream, which sets Sohrab Sepehri's "Address" to music.

Do samples count? Saltillo's A Hair on the Head of John the Baptist samples liberally from performances of Hamlet and Henry V. And obviously there are a ton of songs that sample assorted speeches or quotes taken from movies, tv, etc., see: a ton of hip hop, and Public Service Broadcasting's whole shtick.
posted by yasaman at 1:33 PM on July 1, 2017

Richard Buckner and Kris Delmhorst each released albums with words from existing poems, and they're some of my personal favorites.

For his album The Hill (official site), Richard Buckner selected 18 poems from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology and set them to original music. A few are instrumentals but they all use the same titles as the poems. Here's the album on Bandcamp.

Kris Delmhorst released two albums with original music, and lyrics all adapted from/based on classic poems:

Strange Conversation (official site with song lyrics). (Album on Bandcamp.) From the official site:
Some of the poems are set verbatim to music, some dismantled and reassembled in significantly new renditions, others merely used as the jumping-off point for Delmhorst’s own literate lyrical take.
The poets: Robert Browning, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, James Weldon Johnson, Hermann Broch, George Eliot, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Herrick, John Masefield, Rumi.

The linked page is missing one of my favorite songs from the album: "Sea Fever" with title and words from the poem by John Masefield. (The actual physical CD booklet contained all of the song lyrics, plus text/excerpts from the originals they were based on.)

The Waking (official site with song lyrics):
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of 2006’s Strange Conversation, the original band from that album reconvenes to record six more songs drawn from classic works of poetry by Theodore Roethke, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Blake, Christina Rossetti, and William Butler Yeats.
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 8:13 PM on July 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

That list of songs based on poems in Wikipedia is extremely incomplete (no Ned Rorem pieces?!?). Art song is a huge genre. There is an entire database devoted to them at The LiederNet Archive.
posted by amtho at 8:18 AM on July 2, 2017

Surprised nobody's mentioned Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite by the Beatles, which is pretty much a transposition of this circus poster.

Chapter 24 by Pink Floyd from Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is excerpts from the I Ching.

The Desperate Bicycles' Advice On Arrest is largely a rendition of a flyer circulated by an anarchist collective in 70s London

(The Fall has a great song which is a letter of complaint about the band from a venue manager detailing various sins, but it's not easy to find Fall stuff when you can't remember the song title. Hopefully someone better versed in Mark E Smithania can fill in the blank. I'd certainly like to hear it again...)
posted by Devonian at 8:56 AM on July 2, 2017

One of Will Oldham's most recent records consists mostly of heartfelt renderings of fortune cookie fortunes.
posted by umbú at 9:11 AM on July 2, 2017

These are all fantastic.

Thank you, everyone! This was really fun to read. There's plenty of great stuff to explore here.

I knew about a couple of tracks (like McLachlan's Possession), but some stuff totally surprised me (like DEVO's Big Mess)
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:13 AM on July 2, 2017

Also, one of the most enduring and heartwarming metafilter music tracks, "I am truly fully licensed hairstylist" is based on an exuberant answering machine message.
posted by umbú at 9:16 AM on July 2, 2017

Ben has actually done it himself before - on the album Whatever and Ever Amen, the lyrics of the song Cigarette (aka Fred Jones Pt. 1) are from a newspaper article.
posted by solotoro at 2:12 PM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

A little older, but still definitely "found" lyrics and still quite popular, is Carmina Burana.
posted by nat at 5:15 AM on July 3, 2017

"Crown of Creation" (I think) by the Jefferson Airplane has a huge chunk of lyrics in the middle ripped straight from John Wyndham's "The Chrysalids" -- "Life is change -- how it differs from the rocks; I've seen their ways too often for my liking" etc
posted by alloneword at 2:25 PM on July 5, 2017

Amadan recorded Rhyme of the Remittance Man, a poem originally by Robert W. Service. They made up the chorus.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:18 AM on July 19, 2017

Late addition: The lyrics of the Minutemen's "Take 5, D," consist of a note from a landlady about a leaky shower.
posted by baseballpajamas at 7:49 PM on February 19, 2018

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