Recently, I had iTunes on random and a couple songs played back-to-back that had lines about writing. It didn’t take long for me to wonder, “What are the best songs for writers and about writing?” So I started making my own list, and I put out a call on Facebook and Twitter (find my handles below if you love being part of such conversations).
Anyway, this post puts together my ultimate writing mixtape of the best 20 songs for and about writers and the process of writing. Sure, there are many other great songs about the subject, and please share them in the comments below. But this is the mix I’m going to start rocking on my way to and from writer conferences, open mics, and writing retreats.
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20 Best Songs for Writers and About Writing Mixtape
Track 1: “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” by Fats Waller
This is the perfect intro track with a bit of an instrumental opening before getting into the lyrics, which include, “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter and make believe it came from you.” The song was composed by Fred E. Ahlert and Joe Young in 1935 and made popular by Waller. But it’s been covered by a range of artists, including Billy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, Willie Nelson, Anne Murray, Linda Scott, and Paul McCartney–just to name a few.
Track 2: “I Could Write a Book,” by Dinah Washington
There are two ways to make a transition on a mixtape: smooth or jarring. Both are effective, but I prefer smooth early on in a mix. Enter this wonderful version of “I Could Write a Book,” which was a tune in the Rodgers & Hart 1940 musical Pal Joey. I first heard Harry Connick’s version from When Harry Met Sally…, but a range of artists have performed this song as well, including Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, and Miles Davis.
Track 3: “Dancing in the Dark,” by Bruce Springsteen
According to the Boss, “you can’t start a fire without a spark.” So here we go. The biggest hit off the bestselling album (Born in the U.S.A.) of Bruce Springsteen’s career, “Dancing in the Dark” includes the line that he’s “sick of sitting around here trying to write this book.” Musically, this song jump starts the mix with synths, quick beats, and that fade out sax.
Track 4: “Write About Love,” by Belle and Sebastian
Anyone who has participated in either my April or November poem-a-day challenges knows how I feel about love poems. So of course, Belle and Sebastian’s song “Write About Love” from the album titled Write About Love had to make the cut. In addition to the writing theme, it keeps the upbeat momentum of the early mixtape.
Track 5: “The Engine Driver,” by the Decemberists
Track five slows things down a little, and it plays with the theme of love while taking it’s time getting to the writing reference in the song. But the chorus slams home with, “I am a writer, writer of fictions … and I’ve written pages upon pages trying to rid you from my bones.” Once you hear this song, it stays. Click here for a pretty cool analysis of the song.
Track 6: “Poetry Man,” by Phoebe Snow
Transition time: From slower and lonely to mellow and hopeful. A kind of summer afternoon song by Phoebe Snow about the poetry man, who “makes things alright.” The song actually hit number one on the Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in 1975. In 2007, Queen Latifah covered the song for her Trav’lin’ Light album.
Track 7: “I Am a Rock,” by Simon and Garfunkel
As Paul Simon mentions in the opening of this performance, “This according to Arty is my most neurotic song.” This folk song plays off the previous song’s focus on poetry with the line, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.” I’m sure more than a few poets and readers can relate to that sense of protection from loneliness and isolation. Released as a single in 1966, “I Am a Rock” rose to number three on the Billboard Top 100 list.
Track 8: “Wuthering Heights,” by Kate Bush
Kate Bush hit it big on her debut single, which she wrote at 18 and was based on the novel of the same name. “Wuthering Heights” was released in January 1978 and spent 4 weeks at the number one position of the UK Singles Chart. One interesting part of this song is that Bush lifted lines from Wuthering Heights character Catherine Earnshaw, including “Let me in! I’m so cold!” from the chorus. The song had two music videos; the other one can be viewed by clicking here.
Track 9: “Paperback Writer,” by the Beatles
After some slower (and more somber) songs, we switch up the mood and beat a little with the Beatles. “Paperback Writer” was written by Paul McCartney as a response to a challenge by an aunt, according to disc jockey Jimmy Savile, who asked him to write a single that didn’t have to do with love. Regardless of the inspiration, the song is written as a letter from an author to a publisher, making it relatable to writers everywhere.
Track 10: “Autobiography,” by Sloan
This song starts, “I’m bright and young and gifted in my autobiography; I figured who would know better than me?” I’ve always considered this song a little gem for writers, especially writers who have a life story to tell. This song comes off Sloan’s One Chord to Another album, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Track 11: “Hey Jack Kerouac,” by 10,000 Maniacs
In this performance, Natalie Merchant starts off by reading a brief biography of Jack Kerouac. Then, they jump into this song, which reads like a letter to Kerouac from the opening lines, “Hey Jack Kerouac, I think of your mother and the tears she cried, she cried for none other…” A song about a literary figure and the life of an artist.
Track 12: “Everyday I Write the Book,” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
For mixtape purposes, I consider this a response track to the previous song. This song was the first hit for Costello and the Attractions in the U.S. It uses the process of writing a book as a metaphor for love and a relationship. One part sings, “Chapter One, we didn’t really get along; Chapter Two, I think I fell in love with you…” Costello himself referred to it as a “bad Smokey Robinson song.”
Track 13: “Unwritten,” by Natasha Bedingfield
I have to admit; I didn’t think this song would be a good fit. But hey, sometimes that’s the magic of a mixtape: Each song raises the others. But I love lyrics like, “Staring at the blank page before you” and “Today is when your book begins.” It hit number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2006; so there are at least a few others out there who dig it too.
Track 14: “Word Crimes,” by Weird Al Yankovic
As long as we’re getting into weird territory, it’s time to slip in Weird Al and maybe the best grammar-related song ever. A parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” “Word Crimes” has too many lines to do it justice in a short blurb. But it breaks down the proper use of “it’s” and “its,” in addition to talking about the best time to use the world “literally.”
Track 15: “Oxford Comma,” by Vampire Weekend
From a song about grammar to a song that focuses on one of the more contentious grammar issues of all-time: the Oxford comma. Use it? Don’t use it? In this song, Vampire Weekend seems to be saying, “who cares?” Writers, that’s who! Am I right?
Track 16: “Writers Retreat,” by Lloyd Cole
This is when you know we’re getting real on this mixtape: grammar, Oxford commas, and writing retreats? Heck yeah! This is the writing life. In this song, Cole laments how he won’t be there when his lover returns from the writers retreat. From the chorus: “You can write a book while falling apart.”
Track 17: “I’ll Be Your Sylvia Plath,” by Laurel Brauns
This is a sweet, little connector song between the few rollicking romps before it and the final three of this writing music mix. I wish I could share more about this song and the artist, but it was really unknown to me before being recommended on Facebook. The power of social media!
Track 18: “Romeo and Juliet,” by Dire Straits
Considered a classic song by many, “Romeo and Juliet” riffs off the Shakespearean play of the same name. The Dire Straits version is amazing, but I also love the one by the Indigo Girls (listen here). This song is for the literary minded, the broken hearted, and people who just like great music.
Track 19: “BMFA,” by Martha Wainwright
The actual title for this song is a little censored, but multiple folks recommended the song on social media. And I like it. So I’m including it. The song’s opening line is, “Poetry’s no place for a heart that’s a whore.” And eventually there is quite a bit of swearing. If that’s too much, skip this track so the kids can’t hear it. If it’s not, turn up the volume and sing along.
Track 20: “Box Full of Letters,” by Wilco
This is what I call a framing song. The first and final track are both about letter writing. Ha! But seriously, this is a great track that begins, “Got a box full of letters, I think you might like to read…but they’re all addressed to me.” Also, “I just can’t find the time to write my mind the way I want it to read.” And honestly, that about sums up how I often feel as a writer.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine.
He loves writing and music; so this is like his favorite blog post ever.
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