Word for Word: How a classic crosses over into song

Suzanne Vega, a former English major, has often been inspired by literature, not least in her song Calypso, which she included in her set at the Olympia.

Suzanne Vega, a former English major, has often been inspired by literature, not least in her song Calypso, which she included in her set at the Olympia.

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 01:00

The classics weave themselves into the cultural fabric of each generation. Last month the New York singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega played a rare concert in Dublin. Vega, a former English major, has often been inspired by literature, not least in her song Calypso , which she included in her set at the Olympia.

The song is an airy ballad with a mournful guitar line, written from the point of view of the sea nymph who helps Odysseus after he is shipwrecked in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey : “A long time ago / I watched him struggle with the sea / I knew that he was drowning / And I brought him into me.”

Odysseus is returning to Ithaca from Troy, where he helped the Greeks defeat the Trojans, when his ship is struck by a thunderbolt. Calypso, the beautiful daughter of Atlas, who lives on Ogygia, rescues and falls in love with Odysseus. “As I sing into the wind / I tell of nights / where I could taste the salt on his skin.”

She keeps him on her lush, flowered island for seven years and even offers him immortality if he will marry her. But he pines for home and for his human wife, Penelope – the salt she tastes is “salt of the waves and of tears”.

Eventually, after a request from Athena, Zeus sends Hermes to tell Calypso to let Odysseus sail home.

The song first appeared on Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing , released in 1987. It is apparently beloved of classics teachers, who use it to teach their classes about Calypso.

But Vega is only one of many songwriters who have been inspired by Homer’s epic. Tales of Brave Ulysses , a single recorded by Cream in 1967, has a lyric by the pop artist Martin Sharp that refers to the encounter of Odysseus – also known as Ulysses – with the Sirens in Book 12. Sharp wrote a poem referencing the mythical hero, whose “naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing”, and gave it to Eric Clapton, who put it to an acid-rock backdrop.

The Sirens cropped up again that year in Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett’s beautiful Song to the Siren . Its refrain, “Should I stand amid the breakers? / Should I lie with Death my bride? / Hear me sing, ‘Swim to me, Swim to me, Let me enfold you / Here I am, Here I am, Waiting to hold you’,” was rendered all the more poignant by Buckley’s death at 28 of a heroin overdose.

Other songs inspired by it include Genesis’s pedestrian Home by the Sea and Steely Dan’s stylish Home at Last .

Heavy-metal bands are keen on it too. Many more have been inspired via Joyce’s Ulysses , most notably Kate Bush’s The Sensual World , released in 1989 and rerecorded in 2011 as Flower of the Mountain .

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