With regard to musical settings in English-language, it seems fairly likely that William Blake is now the most popular among his fellow bards. He emerges as one of the main literary references in musical movements like pop, folk and rock all over the world. Such popularity proves to be the result of a significant conjunction of factors, ranging from the formal structure of his poems, the consonance between Blake's social, political and artistic values and countercultural movements of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, Blake never showed interest in transforming his collections of poems into a song book, a format very popular in his times. Perhaps he exempted his own songs from musical notation for understanding that such prescriptive implement would fetter his own “fairies”. Instead, he preserved his tunes in text and image, believing that his words and illuminations were the source of infinite melodies that would stand the test of time. The substantial and soaring number of music settings inspired either directly or indirectly by his work confirms that Blake was successfully able to insert and signal the fundamentally musical aspect of his production without make use of dots and ties, since rarely have poems enjoyed such a vast popularity, with a plethora of melodic interpretations from the late 19th century onwards. By analysing Blake’s earliest renderings in popular genres, such as Ed Sanders’s settings for Ah Sunflower and How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field (1963), followed by Allen Ginsberg’s album Songs of Innocence and Experience (1969), we aim to understand how musicians find simultaneously Blake’s voice and their own when setting a Blake poem.
Camila Oliveira is a postdoctoral researcher at the English Department of the University of Geneva. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/ Kings College London (2021) and a MA in Music. Currently researches the influence of William Blake in popular music and translated Jerusalem (2021) to Portuguese.