Longtime readers of J.R.R. Tolkien know he had a deep fondness for poetry and song. Apart from his own compositions chronicling the early history of Middle-earth (such as The Lays of Beleriand), he filled both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with poetry, composed or recited, as it were, by the characters as part of the story. It added a richness and depth to the imagined peoples of his fantasy world that is rarely matched or emulated.
That’s not to say that some (such as Leonard Nimoy, above) didn’t try. Whether they succeeded, though, is open to debate.
I’m not sure whether it’s my age that makes me aware of some of these examples or if Tolkien’s writing was actually having a measurable effect on pop culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but there are a number of songs that were not written by Tolkien but were explicitly drawn from his writing.
1. The Greatest Adventure / Glenn Yarborough
Those of us born in the ’70s may remember the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit, in which a number of the book’s poems were actually set to music. (An interesting discussion on whether singing the dwarves’ “That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates” song would get you out of having to do the dishes can be found in the comments on SJ’s fine post on the first five chapters of The Hobbit.) Personally, my favourite from the movie was the goblins’ “Ho-ho, My Lad!” But setting Tolkien’s work to music wasn’t enough; the producers needed a song for the opening credits, evidently, and dwarves singing about smashing hobbit crockery just wasn’t going to cut it. So here we have “The Greatest Adventure,” sung by Glenn Yarbrough, in fine 1970s folk fashion:
2. Rivendell / Rush
Of course, Tolkien was already being absorbed by heavy rock around the same time, with CanCon legends Rush paying tribute to Middle-earth with “Rivendell” off their 1974 album Fly By Night.
I am sad to admit, though I like Rush and I like Tolkien, that I don’t like this song. It is a beautiful, delicate song — but not much happens there, just like in the books. Rinvedell’s role in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, is to be a place of refuge and healing, where the characters go to recover from injury or trouble on their journeys. Not terribly exciting, no matter how awesome Elrond is. (Yes, I hear you Tolkien fans out there clamouring about moon runes and the Council of Elrond — it’s not like nothing important happens in Rivendell, but compared to the rest of the respective books, with chases, battles and lurking menace, you would be hard-pressed to deny that the action essentially stops while the characters are in Rivendell. That’s just how Elrond rolls.)
3. Ramble On / Led Zeppelin
Of course, Rush may have also been a little influenced by their massively popular contemporaries, Led Zeppelin, who included Tolkien references in their lyrics to “Ramble On,” off their 1969 album Led Zeppelin II. I do love this song, and not just because I probably like more Zeppelin songs than Rush songs. Like “Rivendell,” this one straddles the folk/heavy rock genres; but there is more evidence of the latter here. It’s the layered guitar and the fantastic percussion that stand out, as well as Robert Plant’s passionate singing. I still don’t understand Zeppelin’s take on Middle-earth history, though; instead of stealing the One Ring, Gollum makes off with Plant’s girlfriend (apparently) and takes her to Mordor to show her a good time. Erm, yeah.
A more in-depth consideration of the Tolkien-Zeppelin connection can found here.
4. The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins / Leonard Nimoy
I don’t even know what to say about this. Recorded (with a music video!) when Nimoy was still sporting his 1960s Spock hairdo, this is just… just… so awful, it totally rules. Try, try to get the tune out of your head after you hear it.
I did find a longer (“complete”) version… but decided the shorter one would suffice.
(I agree, by the way, with SJ and Meg that readers should learn how to do this dance. I’d add, also, to throw laundry in the air to simulate fighting orcs. Hear that, Peter Jackson? Who needs special effects from Weta when you’ve got a hamper of separated colours handy?)
5. Into the West / Annie Lennox
In the proud Hollywood tradition of sticking what the producers hope will be a hit single into the end credits of a movie, the songs presented at the end of each of Peter Jackson’s live-action adaptations of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King are also something to consider in a list like this. I loved the scores for the movies composed by Howard Shore, and I liked the songs by Enya (“May it Be”) and Emiliana Torrini (“Gollum’s Song”); but for me the ending of the epic story is captured perfectly by Annie Lennox’s “Into the West,” which musically sends off Frodo and the other Ringbearers to the Undying Lands. Lennox and Shore, along with Fran Walsh, worked together on the song, and I don’t care if you never liked the Eurythmics — Lennox has a phenomenal voice, and this is a beautiful, great song that should make you weep when you get to the end of The Return of the King.
I know there are more songs out there that have explicit or inferred reference to Tolkien’s world. Which ones are your favourites, or are songs you just cannot stand? Share your thoughts in the comments!
And be sure to check out what other bloggers are saying as we read through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings this summer. Recent posts include Danielle at ProfMomEsq on Hobbit-inspired art, Kate’s take on Tolkien’s action sequences and dealing with dwarvish attitude at Kate of Mind, and Amy’s guest post at Snobbery on reading The Hobbit for the first time. The growing list of posts has been curated by the tireless SJ at BookSnobbery here.