Old Poems Made into New Songs: The Best CD Recordings

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Poems are more than song lyrics, often more complex and certainly more independent—take the music away from most pop song lyrics and they collapse into someting very thin, almost transparent. But that is not to say that a poem can’t be remade into a good song, and since there have been poems, composers and songwriters have set them to music. Here is a selection of the best contemporary CDs on which classic poems are set to music, old poems made into new songs.

An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, by the Waterboys

(Proper American Records, 2011) On the occasion of the Waterboys’ March 2010 performances of “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Graeme Thomson told the story of how that show came to be in The Guardian: “Why poetry and pop are not such strange bedfellows”—“One day in 2005, Mike Scott decamped to his music room armed only with a long-cherished dream and a copy of WB Yeats’s greatest hits, a brick-like anthology of the late poet’s collected works. For a fortnight, the leader of the Waterboys sat at his piano and ploughed methodically through the book, pushing and prodding at the words on each page until some began to offer a glimmer of a song....” Done up with lushly orchestrated Irish folk soul, the collection of songs formed a hugely acclaimed live show and this memorable album.More »

The Garden of Love—Songs of William Blake, by Martha Redbone Roots Project

(Blackfeet Productions, CDBaby, 2012)
from All Things Considered (National Public Radio):
Blake’s Poems, Reborn As Bluesy Folk Tunes, Burn Bright
William Blake called many of his poems ‘songs,’ and over the years, many composers have set them to music.... The latest release from singer Martha Redbone is a new take on Blake’s poems, titled The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. With collaborators John McEuen and Aaron Whitby, she created new settings for 12 Blake songs.” Redbone tapped into a deep connection between Blake’s poems and her own Appalachian roots—a connection so natural that NPR interviewer Robert Siegel, on hearing the album’s title song, “The Garden of Love,” was prompted to exclaim, “I could believe that William Blake came from Kentucky or West Virginia, hearing that tune...”More »

Leave Your Sleep, by Natalie Merchant

(Nonesuch 2-CD set with booklet, 2010) Natalie Merchant, a new mother in her 40s, began a collection of lullabies for her baby daughter and ended up spending five years researching and recording this album of 19th and 20th century American and British poems, making songs that draw on world-ranging musical traditions—reggae, jazz, old-fashioned music hall, contemporary pop—and working with 130 different musicians. Her take on the project: “It was an exciting, new approach for me to work with rhythm and rhyme schemes created by other writers. The poems inspired vastly different musical settings with their themes that ranged from humorous and absurd to tragic, romantic, and deeply spiritual.” She talks about the album in an interview on her Web site.More »

Strange Conversation, by Kris Delmhorst

(Signature Sounds, 2006) Kris Delmhorst takes definitive ownership of the poems she has made into songs here, adding a sweet country-folk lilt to Lord Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” adapting poems by Rumi, Robert Herrick, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman and e.e. cummings, and writing her own lyrics “inspired” by Virgil for the title song on the album.More »

Neruda, by Luciana Souza

(Sunnyside, 2004) Brazilian-born jazz singer Luciana Souza sings English translations of Pablo Neruda’s poems, with elegantly spare orchestrations, in her lovely, pure alto voice. Some listeners have complained about her use of translations—poetry translation is inevitably a focus of contention—but this undeniably beautiful recording is a good approach to Neruda’s work for English-speaking listeners. Visit Souza’s Web site to view a YouTube video of her breathtaking performance of Neruda’s Sonnet 49, accompanied only by her own karimba (African thumb piano).More »

Yeats Is Greats, by The Speakers

(The Speakers, 2005) The Speakers are Brian Miller and Peter Musselman, a duo now living in the San Francisco Bay area who’ve been making music together since their boyhood in Pennsylvanis and who’ve been described as “low-fi, new-folk,” and “subdued alt-country.” The two thought William Butler Yeats’ poems sounded like country songs and were inspired to create this dreamy collection of poems set to music—about half the album is Yeats; the other half their own poems.More »

The Inspiration of William Blake, by Jah Wobble

(Thirsty Ear Recordings, 1996) Former punk rocker (he was the bassist in Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Ltd.) Jah Wobble (his adopted name, taken from Sid Vicious’ malaprop introduction—his given name was John Wardle) gave up drinking, studied poetry and philosophy (“all the stuff I’d dismissed as sentimental shit”)—and now he’s reclaiming William Blake from the Tories and collaborating with the Royal Symphony Orchestra. He recites some of the poems in The Inspiration of William Blake over background music, sings others, and embellishes them all with lushly atmospheric electronica, ambient, experimental sounds.More »

Songs for Edna, by Caroline Weeks

(Manimal Vinyl Digi-Pak, 2009) “Edna” is, of course, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and in her first solo recording, Caroline Weeks honors Millay’s poems with simple, lovely interpretations. She recorded the album in three nights at her home in Brighton, England, limiting the instrumentation “to allow the music [and the poems] space to breathe”—and they do, quite beautifully, breathe.More »

When Love Speaks, by Various Artists

(EMI Classics, 2002) When Love Speaks is a compilation album featuring Shakespeare’s love sonnets read by famous actors—Brits, mostly from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Alan Rickman, Sir Richard Attenborough, Fiona Shaw, Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt, for example. These are simple recordings of the spoken poems, but the reasons for the inclusion of the CD on this list of poems set to music are the eight original songs made from the sonnets by Rufus Wainright, Barbara Bonney, Des’ree, Bryan Ferry, Keb Mo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Annie Lennox, and John Potter.More »

All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, by Rufus Wainwright

(Verve, 2010) For this recording, which includes his adaptations of Shakespeare’s sonnets 10, 20 and 43, Wainwright pared down to voice and piano, no orchestra, and the result is impressively intimate and lovely.More »

Nights from the Alhambra, by Loreena McKennitt

(Verve, 2007) Canadian Celtic folkie Loreena McKennitt recorded this album at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, including among her own songs and traditional ballads several settings of classic poems: W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” and the funeral song from Act IV, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.More »

No Promises, by Carla Bruni

(Downtown, 2007) Heiress and supermodel Carla Bruni left the fashion world to devote herself to music in 1997 and married French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008. After a hit album of French songs, she devoted No Promises, her second album, entirely to English and American poets of the 19th and 20th centuries—W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Walter de la Mare and Dorothy Parker. Some of the poems don’t survive their conversion to pop songs on this CD, but others are surprisingly vibrant, incarnated in Bruni’s sweetly breathy Continental-accented singing voice.More »
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