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Jonathan Whitmer ACF Abstract FY11

"William Blake in 20th Century Popular Music"

Conference Name: Midwest Popular Culture Association Annual Conference

William Blake communicated his ideas about the human experience, the supernatural and religion, morality, politics, and the role of the artist through poetry that invoked a rich symbolic mythos that prefigured by almost two centuries the radical artistic innovations of the 20th century. The appropriation of his poetry in 20th century popular music and poetry reflects the affinity between his thinking and postmodernity as manifested in Blake’s rejection of the Enlightenment rationalism, his elevation of imagination, his polemic use of visceral artistic expression, and his rejection of the conventional moralism of established religion.

U2’s landmark album, The Joshua Tree, which the band had originally considered beginning with an adaptation of Blake’s “Introduction to Songs of Experience”, exemplified a thematic approach similar to Blake’s Songs of Experience, with its focus on social and political criticism. Terry Scott Taylor and his band, Daniel Amos, also exhibited significant Blakean influences during the same time period in their use of the Blakean theme of contraries on numerous songs during the same time period. This willingness to critique the status quo—both among conservative political thought and among a reductionist religious subculture—parallels Blake’s own criticism of the Enlightenment project (for its optimistic rationalism) and the established church (for its tendency toward legalism, exploitation, and hypocrisy). Likewise, poets/lyricists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Van Morrison, The Doors, and Patti Smith, for example, have found inspiration in Blake’s poetry. This paper studies the extensive intertextuality linking Blake’s poetry with popular music and poetry from the 20th century.