Last week, a variety of music outlets noted that Thom Yorke’s original, handwritten lyrics to “Airbag,” the opening track off Radiohead’s 1997 release OK Computer, were going to be auctioned off for charity.
However, apart from the act of goodwill, the most intriguing part of the story is that Yorke had written these lyrics inside one of William Blake’s most famous books of poetry, Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
As random as this connection might seem, Yorke is not the first musician to thumb through or annotate portions of the Romantic poet’s body of work.
Many songwriters have taken inspiration from the song-like structure of Blake’s most inspiring compositions. And they often utilize his words to convey the same abstract, universally-experienced concepts.
In 1981, Bob Dylan released a song shortly after converting to Christianity called “Every Grain of Sand,” hailed by many as one of his finest. And although Dylan had subscribed to themes in Blake’s poetry throughout the folk singer’s career (see “Gates of Eden”), this song presents his most apparent parallels to Blake’s poems, drawing similarities between 1804’s “Jerusalem” and 1803’s “Augaries of Innocence.” The opening line of the latter poem reads “To see the World in a Grain of Sand,” which crystallizes the work’s influence.
The parallels between Romantic poetry and 20th century music only grows more interesting when Jim Morrison is introduced. Not only did Morrison reference Blake’s lyrics on 1967’s “End of the Night,” but moreover selected the name of his band, The Doors, in reference to Aldous Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception which features a short verse from Blake’s 1790-93 book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It reads: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”
However, it is not too difficult to believe that Morrison, a poet himself, would be familiar with such an important individual in the medium.
Yet, despite Morrison’s death in 1971 and Bob Dylan’s old age, Blake’s influence on contemporary culture has remained strong even without his initial postmortem couriers.
Remember that annoying U2 album given away for free to every Apple user? If you do, you might recall that it’s titled Songs of Innocence, a direct reference to Blake’s work of the same name, but I doubt Blake would have wanted to be involved in that catastrophe.
Other artists with confirmed inspiration from the bygone poet include Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, M. Ward, Tangerine Dream, Donovan and Emerson, Lake and Palmer to name a few known examples. There’s really no way of knowing how many more there could be that never publicly spoke about it or could potentially gain success in years to come.
These examples might cause us to ask the question: why? Is this choice of Romantic-era source material because of the lasting impact of Blake’s work? Or could it have been his standing among counterculture figures like Allen Ginsberg and others?
It’s probably a bit of both considering most people learn about Blake’s work through the remnants of a now-defunct cultural movement and then discover the value of its academic importance and captivating aesthetics. With his death, Blake left behind a holy reserve for the songwriters from the 1960s and on, whom carry his carefully crafted observations to new audiences.
And although Blake’s original messages might be shrouded in others’ words and phrases, they still permeate over noisy guitars and rhythmic drums to show a glimpse of ideas and emotions that have not faded away since 1827 and probably will not for a long while more.
Luke Furman is a sophomore studying journalism and a reporter for The Post. Have you noticed William Blake’s influence on modern music? Tweet him @LukeFurmanOU or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.