So I’m flipping through folk music CDs at the library one day and I see this compilation called Songs Inspired By Literature. I check it out and give it a listen, but it’s mostly forgettable.
Except for Bob Hillman’s song “Tolstoy.” In fact, I saw this CD again last week and checked it out just for this song. The next time I teach Tolstoy in World Lit, I need to bring this in.
It merits all the usual superlatives: fresh, original, and (especially for folk music) fun. The music is a resonating punch of running guitar chords, set to a brashly declarative lyric that shifts from appreciation of the author to brief plot summaries to bracingly apt images that serve as metaphors for the Russian giant’s achievement.
At one point, Hillman praises Tolstoy’s work for its “gargantuan themes” and for being “impossibly long,” and offers this modern example of something that could illustrate what he means: “Down to the quivering lip and the look in your eye / When your father died / And you couldn’t quite say what you wanted to say / But you touched his hand and he knew you were there.” It’s not random, it’s an uncanny impersonation of exactly the kind of subtle psychological insight Tolstoy crafted out of simple glimpses of ordinary life, seen as a panoramic tapestry.
And, ironically, he delivers this paean to epics in about two and a half minutes. Listen to it free at Rhapsody.