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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sigh No More/Mumford & Sons

Congratulations to Mumford & Sons for their memorable joint performance with Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers tonight at the 2011 Grammy Awards. We hope it makes up for being passed over in the two categories in which they were nominated (Best New Artist and Best Rock Song).

The London Evening Standard dubbed Mumford & Sons "The Bookshop Band" and wrote that their music, "like the best bookshops, is intimate, old-fashioned and filled with literary references." For our part, we hardly know where to begin with their debut album Sigh No More. Marcus Mumford told the paper that nearly half the songs on the album are inspired by authors.

Leading the pack is Timshel, inspired by John Steinbeck's East of Eden, published in 1952. The novel makes strong allusions to the Book of Genesis, particularly the story of Cain and Abel. A character named Lee, a Chinese-American domestic servant who spent years studying the Cain and Abel episode, translates the Hebrew word timshel as "Thou mayest"--meaning man is free to choose. Timshel becomes a key point of reference in the book. Lee says:

There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order 'Do thou,' and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in 'Thou shalt.' Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But 'Thou mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. . . . Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this--this is a ladder to the stars."

The song's lyrics distill this as: And you have your choices/And these are what make man great/His ladder to the stars. The repeated line As brothers we will stand and we'll hold your hand also resonates as the book focuses on two sets of brothers within the Trask family--Charles and Adam, and in the next generation Caleb and Aron--whose lives parallel those of Cain and Abel in significant ways.

Steinbeck's influence can also be felt in the track Dust Bowl Dance, an allusion to the milieu of his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. Marcus Mumford even connects his favorite author's attitude to the experience of touring. "He talked about how a journey is a thing of its own, and you can't plan it or predict it too much because that suffocates the life out of it," he told the London Evening Standard. "That's kind of what touring is like. Even though there's a structure--you know what towns you're going to, and that you'll be playing a gig--pretty much anything can happen."

Other references: The album's title is a quote from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and the title track, Sigh No More, includes quotes from that play. Roll Away Your Stone paraphrases Macbeth (Shakespeare's For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black desires becomes Stars hide your fires/For these here be my desires). "You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer's going to call you up on that one," Mumford observes. The Cave includes references to Homer's The Odyssey--as we've seen in previous posts, a favorite literary reference in popular music.

The band's devotion to books extends beyond their music: They took part in a campaign to help save Britain's struggling independent booksellers. And when Marcus Mumford isn't writing songs, performing, touring, or reading, he runs a book club on the band's website.

East of Eden (KindleEdition)
The Grapes of Wrath (Kindle Edition)
Much Ado About Nothing (Kindle Edition)
Macbeth (Kindle Edition)
The Odyssey (Kindle Edition)

1 comment:

  1. Mumford and Sons are awesome. Great analysis. I am using this review as a source for a paper in my American Literature class on John Steinbeck!