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Thursday, July 8, 2010

For the 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus/The Noisettes, and more

This Sunday, July 11th, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in a small Alabama town during the Depression, the story concerns Scout and Jem, two young children living with their widowed father, attorney Atticus Finch. In the course of the novel the children indulge a fascination with their mysterious, reclusive, and somewhat frightening neighbor Boo Radley, while Atticus tries to defend Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly accused of rape. The book has sold about 40 million copies over the last five decades, has never been out of print, and is a fixture on students' required reading lists. The acclaimed 1962 film version is an acknowledged classic and gave Gregory Peck his only Academy Award, for his portrayal of Atticus.

To Kill a Mockingbird has also inspired some popular music, including the three songs featured here:

Atticus, by the Noisettes, from their 2009 album Wild Young Hearts, states its inspiration in the first line: To kill a mockingbird is/To silence the song that seduces you.  As the title suggests, Atticus Finch provides the central image of the song, serving as a symbol of character and quiet courage from which the singer draws strength: I have no fear/I am Atticus now.

Each Year, from Ra Ra Riot's 2007 EP Ra Ra Riot, is also drawn from Lee's novel. "I had recently read To Kill a Mockingbird, which had a huge impact on me," says band member Wesley Miles," and John [Ryan Pike] and I talked a lot about it on our way down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Those experiences served as the lyrical inspiration." The racially tinged trial of Tom Robinson is alluded to in the line Coverin' a fault with trials and show displays. The song also addresses another focus of the book, the children's relationship with Boo Radley, a figure only glimpsed through a window because his abusive father keeps him locked up in the house: Silhouettes in a window frame/Better run if it's Boo's old man/He won't know if you're white/Oh, in the night. Other lines seem to allude to young Scout and her role model, the admirable Atticus: Never mind what your/Daughter is taught in school/What she remembers is/What she has learned from you.
Jem and Scout's fascination with Boo is also the focus of Bruce Hornsby's "Sneaking Up on Boo Radley," from  his 1998 album Spirit Trail: They say he's crazy, they say he's gone/We play our tricks, make up funny songs/Sneaking around, feeling badly/Sneaking up on Boo Radley. The song depicts the kids creeping around the Radley house, trying to catch a gimpse of Boo, and conveys their mixed feelings about what they're doing: They say he's funny, got a loose screw/Stay away, he's a threat to you/Give him a break, what do we know/Might turn out we would like him so/We fear what we don't know. (In the novel, Boo comes to the children's aid at a crucial moment.) The lines Down the street, walking sadly/My little sister, loves him madly suggest the song is narrated by Jem.  "I grew up on that novel," Hornsby said of To Kill a Mockingbird on NPR's "World Cafe."  A live version of Sneaking Up On Boo Radley appears on Hornsby's 2000 album Here Come the Noise Makers.

In addition to inspiring songs, To Kill a Mockingbird has also provided names for such bands as Atticus and The Boo Radleys.

Finally, if you're looking for music to read To Kill a Mockingbird by, you couldn't do better than Elmer Bernstein's evocative original film score, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

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