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Popular Music and Literature

The relationship between popular music, literature and the written word throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has extended from their critical connections as subjects of study, to structural similarities, and a shared narrative power to represent and shape cultural, social and political history. Explore the ongoing encounters and collisions between these disciplines, and some of the key artists and writers at the heart of their intersections.

“I’m a poet, and I know it.
Hope I don’t blow it” 
– Bob Dylan (from ‘I Shall Be Free No 10’, 1964)


Bob Dylan plays piano with a harmonica around his neck during the recording of the album 'Highway 61 Revisited' in Columbia's Studio A in the summer of 1965 in New York City

Poet songwriters

In 2016, Bob Dylan received widespread media attention for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, in recognition of the poetic value of his lyrics. Discover the story behind the enduring critical interest in his ‘song-poems’ and Dylan’s own intention for his songs as continuous lyrical autobiography, statements of political protest, and as an outlet for his disillusionment with the big city, in the style of poets such as Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud.

Another poet-songwriter and Bob Dylan’s contemporary, Leonard Cohen, transitioned from writing formalistic poetry and prose, to poetry in song. Learn about how jazz and poetry readings by Jack Kerouac had a notable early influence on his work.

Allen Ginsberg and other Beatnik poets reading poetry during a party.

The Beat Generation

American writer and figurehead for the ‘Beat Generation’, Jack Kerouac, lived a life infused by the sound of songs at home, out on the road, and within live performances. Read more about the rich association between literature and music in his work and how his peripatetic style sought to mirror bebop jazz rhythms.

Also discover Kerouac’s influence on modern artists from Van Morrison to Pearl Jam and that of his fellow Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg on The Beatles, as well as how Paul Simon came to reinvent their American road narrative.

 Rapper YG performs onstage at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California

Intertextuality of rap music

Intertextuality is a device mainly known within a literary context, but author Quentin Williams explores the frequency of intertextual references within rap, along with its multiple levels of meaning and linguistic subtlety. Discover more about the way MCs sample from everyday texts circulating in and outside of hip-hop spaces and how their performances may be indicative of intertextual sampling.

English singer Sheila Buxton reads music magazine 'Melody Maker' at her home in 1958

Music Journalism

Reporting or writing about music is a key component of the industry’s ecosystem. Read more about music journalism’s common critical criteria, its role in capturing the essence of music, and how its connection to the more literary style of New Journalism led to the development of the cult of the rock journalist.


Country Focus: Popular Music in Argentina

A man walks past an image of Carlos Gardel painted on a wall in Buenos Aires
Popular music in Argentina has a richly diverse history, with influences from the indigenous population, European settlers, and African slaves. Tango developed as a vibrant and passionate style of music and dance towards the end of the nineteenth century in Buenos Aires, and grew to become a significant and enduring component of Argentinian cultural identity. Artists such as Carlos Gardél and Ignacio Corsini were key in popularising the genre through the 1920s, leading to a ‘golden age’ of tango in the clubs, dance halls, and streets of 1940s and 50s Argentina. 

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World Volume IX explores the eclectic popular music genres of the Caribbean and Latin America, including Argentinian folclore, milonga, and rock nacional.


Miles Davis

Miles Davis playing trumpet on stage in 1970
Miles Davis enjoyed a prolific five-decade career as one of the most acclaimed and innovative musicians in the history of jazz. Born in Illinois, his family eventually moved to St Louis, Missouri where he began to play his trumpet in bands, before later moving to New York City and becoming a jazz session regular in Harlem – performing jazz in the bebop style, and alongside his hero Charlie Parker. He went on to develop the idiom of cool jazz with his various groups, eventually coming to write his seminal work Kind of Blue in 1959, which became the best-selling jazz album of all time.

Find out more about one of his greatest albums, Bitches Brew, in the 33 1/3 edition by George Grella Jr.