Celebrate Kurt Vonnegut’s 100 Birthday with a Collection of Songs Based on His Work

There’s a pas­sage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons that cross­es our desk a lot at this time of year. It’s the one in which he declares Armistice Day, which coin­ci­den­tal­ly falls on his birth­day, sacred:

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juli­et, for instance.

And all music is.

Here, here!

Hope­ful­ly Shake­speare won’t take umbrage if we skip over his doomed teenaged lovers to cel­e­brate Kurt Vonnegut’s 11/11 Cen­ten­ni­al with songs inspired by his work.

Take the Kil­go­re Trout Expe­ri­ence’s trib­ute to Sirens of Titan, above.

The dri­ving force behind the KTE Tim Langs­ford, a drum­mer who men­tors Autis­tic stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ply­mouth, was look­ing for ways to help his “fog­gy mind remem­ber the key con­cepts, char­ac­ters, and mem­o­rable lines that occur in each” of Vonnegut’s 14 books.

The solu­tion? Com­mu­ni­ty and account­abil­i­ty to an ongo­ing assign­ment. Langs­ford launched the Ply­mouth Von­negut Col­lec­tive in 2019 with a type­writ­ten man­i­festo, invit­ing inter­est­ed par­ties to read (or re-read) the nov­els in pub­li­ca­tion order, then gath­er for month­ly dis­cus­sions.

His lofti­er goal was for book club mem­bers to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly on a 14-track con­cept album informed by their read­ing.

They stuck to it, with efforts span­ning a vari­ety of gen­res.

Moth­er Night might make your ears bleed.

The psy­che­del­ic God Bless You, Mis­ter Rose­wa­ter mix­es quotes from the book with edit­ed clips of the col­lec­tive’s dis­cus­sion of the nov­el.

The project pushed Langs­ford out from behind the drum kit, as well as his com­fort zone:

It has tak­en an awful lot to be com­fort­able with the songs on which I sing. How­ev­er, I have tried to invoke KV’s sense of cre­ation as if no one is watch­ing. It doesn’t mat­ter so do it for your­self…. Although do I con­tra­dict that by shar­ing these things to the inter­net rather than trash­ing them unseen or unheard?!  

Ah, but isn’t one of the most beau­ti­ful uses of the Inter­net as a tool for find­ing out what we have in com­mon with our fel­low humans?

Con­grat­u­la­tions to our fel­low Von­negut fans in Ply­mouth, who will be cel­e­brat­ing their achieve­ment and the leg­endary author’s 100th birth­day with an event fea­tur­ing poet­ry, art, music and film inspired by the birth­day boy’s nov­els.

Folk rock­er Al Stew­art is anoth­er who “was drawn by the Sirens of Titan.”  The lyrics make per­fect sense if the nov­el is fresh in your mind:

But here in the yel­low and blue of my days

I wan­der the end­less Mer­cu­ri­an caves

Watch­ing for the signs the Har­mo­ni­ans make

The words on the walls

The lyrics to Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Stewart’s peers in Ambrosia are pulled straight from the holy scrip­ture of Bokonon­ism, the reli­gion Von­negut invent­ed in Cat’s Cra­dle.

The band gave the author a writ­ing cred­it. He repaid the com­pli­ment with a fan let­ter:

I was at my daughter’s house last night, and the radio was on. By God if the DJ didn’t play our song, and say it was num­ber ten in New York, and say how good you guys are in gen­er­al. You can imag­ine the plea­sure that gave me. Luck has played an enor­mous part in my life. Those who know pop music keep telling me how lucky I am to be tied in with you. And I myself am crazy about our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn’t I be?  This much I have always known, any­way: Music is the only art that’s real­ly worth a damn. I envy you guys.

If that isn’t nice, we don’t know what is.

Vonnegut’s best known work, the time-trav­el­ing, peren­ni­al­ly banned anti-war nov­el, Slaugh­ter­house-Five, presents an irre­sistible song­writ­ing chal­lenge, judg­ing from the num­ber of tunes that have sprout­ed from its fer­tile soil.

Susan Hwang is unique­ly immersed in all things Von­negut, as founder of the Bush­wick Book Club, a loose col­lec­tive of musi­cians who con­vene month­ly to present songs inspired by a pre-select­ed title — includ­ing almost every nov­el in the Von­negut oeu­vre, as well as the short sto­ries in Wel­come to the Mon­key House and the essays com­pris­ing A Man With­out a Coun­try.

She was a Kurt Von­negut Muse­um & Library 2022 Banned Books Week artist-in-res­i­dence.

She titled her recent EP of five Von­negut-inspired songs, Every­thing is Sateen, a nod to the Sateen Dura-Luxe house paint Vonnegut’s abstract expres­sion­ist, Rabo Karabekian, favors in Blue­beard.

We’re fair­ly con­fi­dent that Hwang’s No Answer, offered above as a thank you to crowd­fun­ders of a recent tour, will be the boun­ci­est adap­ta­tion of Slaugh­ter­house-Five you’ll hear all day.

Keep lis­ten­ing.

Sweet Soubrette, aka Ellia Bisker, anoth­er Bush­wick Book Club fix­ture and one half of the goth-folk duo Charm­ing Dis­as­ter, leaned into the hor­rors of Dres­den for her Slaugh­ter­house-Five con­tri­bu­tion, namecheck­ing rub­ble, barbed wire, and the “mus­tard gas and ros­es” breath born of a night’s heavy drink­ing.

Song­writ­ing musi­col­o­gist Gail Spar­lin’s My Blue Heav­en: The Love Song of Mon­tana Wild­hack — seen here in a library per­for­mance — is as girl­ish and sweet as Valerie Perrine’s take on the char­ac­ter in George Roy Hill’s 1972 film of Slaugh­ter­house-Five

Back in 1988, Hawk­wind’s The War I Sur­vived suf­fused Slaugh­ter­house-Five with some very New Wave synths…

The cho­rus of Sam Ford’s wist­ful So It Goes taps into the nov­el­’s time trav­el­ing aspect, and touch­es on the chal­lenges many sol­diers expe­ri­ence when attempt­ing to rein­te­grate into their pre-com­bat lives :

That ain’t the way home

Who says I wan­na go home?
I’m always home
I’m always home.

Hav­ing invoked Vonnegut’s ever­green phrase, there’s no get­ting away with­out men­tion­ing Nick Lowe’s 1976 pow­er pop hit, though it may make for a ten­u­ous con­nec­tion.

Hi ho!

Still, ten­u­ous con­nec­tions can count as con­nec­tions, espe­cial­ly when you tal­ly up all the ref­er­ences to Cat’s Cra­dle’s secret gov­ern­ment weapon, Ice Nine, in lyrics and band names.

Then there are the sub­merged ref­er­ences. We may not pick up on them, but we’re will­ing to believe they’re there.

Pearl Jam’s front man Eddie Ved­der wrote that “books like Cat’s Cra­dle, God Bless You, Mr. Rose­wa­ter, Play­er Piano…they’ve had as much influ­ence on me as any record I’ve ever owned.”

He also earned a per­ma­nent spot in the karass by pass­ing out copies of Blue­beard to atten­dees at the 4th Annu­al Kokua Fes­ti­val to ben­e­fit envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion in Hawaii.

A mem­o­rable Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons illus­tra­tion is said to have lit a flame with New Order, pro­pelling Von­negut out onto the dance floor.

And Ringo Starr edged his way to favorite Bea­t­le sta­tus when he tipped his hat to Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons, ded­i­cat­ing his 1973 solo album to “Kil­go­re Trout and all the beavers.”

There are dozens more we could men­tion — you’ll find some of them in the playlist below — but with­out fur­ther ado, let’s wel­come to the stage Spe­cial K and His Crew!

Yes, that’s Phish drum­mer (and major Von­negut fan) Jon Fish­man on vac­u­um.

But who’s that mys­tery front man, spit­ting Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales?

Hap­py 100th, Kurt Von­negut! We’re glad you were born.

 Relat­ed Con­tent 

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

Kurt Von­negut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Sto­ries (and Amus­ing­ly Graphs the Shapes Those Sto­ries Can Take)

Kurt Von­negut Gives Advice to Aspir­ing Writ­ers in a 1991 TV Inter­view

Kurt Von­negut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Dis­gust with Civ­i­liza­tion


- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Join her for a free Von­negut Cen­ten­ni­al Fanzine Work­shop at the Kurt Von­negut Muse­um & Library on Novem­ber 19.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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