Sung Any Good Books Lately?

The Songs Inspired by Literature Project turns listeners into readers.

| Arts Extra Special

AFTER READING ANGELA'S ASHES by Frank McCourt, Deborah Pardes couldn't get the central character, Frankie, out of her head. So Pardes, a singer-songwriter and indie label owner in San Francisco, wrote a song in the voice of the struggling young Irishman and called it '7th Step.' After she performed the song on a local radio show, listeners called to ask about the book.'It dawned on me that music inspired by books would be a great bridge between those who have read a book and those who haven't,' she says. Then she took her thinking a step further and realized that unlike movies, which give away books' stories entirely, songs inspired by literature could 'connect those who cannot read books at all with the magic locked inside the pages.'

Researching literacy, Pardes learned that of the 156 countries in the United Nations, the United States ranks 49th in its citizens' ability to read. She learned that 20 percent of American adults 'cannot curl up inside a good book, let alone read to their children or participate fully in the voting process.' So Pardes founded the Songs Inspired By Literature Project (SIBL; With a songwriting contest, a CD, and a program that promotes reading, this nonprofit group aims to raise awareness of adult literacy.

The project's first CD, Chapter One--Songs Inspired By Literature, came out last February. Filled with literate lyrics inspired by Homer, Beckett, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, and many others, the CD features songs donated by Bruce Springsteen, Grace Slick, and Aimee Mann, as well as 10 winners of SIBL's international songwriting competition. San Franciscan Jill Tracy won the Grand Prize with 'Evil Night Together.' Inspired by Luc Sante's Low Life, the song conjures up the underbelly of early-20th-century New York. 'Tell Your Story Walking,' from Massachusetts artist Deb Talan, was inspired by her emotional response to Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. 'No joke, I laughed, I cried,' Talan says.

SIBL's new documentary film, Tell Your Story Walking: Literacy and Power in America, is planned for PBS broadcast in 2003. And SIBL's next CD, Chapter Two, is due to be released in March. Tom Waits is already on the playlist, with 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find,' based on the Flannery O'Connor novel. And Pardes is working on more ways to get the word out. 'Storytelling is crucial to the survival of our humanity,' she says.

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