Waterloo Bridge

Past columns and songs have shown how some physical features lend themselves more to literary or musical interpretations and inspiration than others.  Waterfalls are good in this respect. And cathedrals and stations. And cross-roads, too –how symbolic are they!. T junctions less so, though. Bridges, too, are rather like stations in this regard – an object  that is not just about physical geography but a symbol for all sorts of things. crossing over to something new, leaving something behind, joining and connecting, a turning point. Wordsworth’s famous poem Upon Westminster Bridge used the view from the bridge to describe a moment of a familiar world made new again. In a totally different media, the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, the bridge being built became a metaphor for something much wider.

The bridge in song  has already cropped up in previous columns - Battersea Bridge in Grief Came Riding, London Bridge in Earlies  - and  London bridges, indeed, have been well served by song over the years. Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity described an evening walk along the Albert Embankment by the Thames in From Vauxhall to Lambeth Bridge in 1969. The Pogues painted an evocative dream in Misty Morning, Albert Bridge in 1989. Half Man Half Biscuit echoed Wordsworth in Upon Westminster Bridge. Further afield Brooklyn Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs, amongst others, have made it into song. It has also been claimed  that  the most famous musical offering featuring a bridge  - Bridge Over Troubled Waters – was  inspired by a real place, Bickleigh Bridge in Devon, a claim based on the fact that Paul Simon had stayed in the village in the early 60’s, presumably before heading north to Widnes Station and penning Homeward Bound. (It is  a pity that this claim seems erroneous. I think that on a summer family holiday once as a child, I may have sat sketching this very bridge, motivated by just having done Perspective in art lessons at school)

The song here, Waterloo Bridge by Louise Marshall, returns once again to that part of London that seems to have run through this blog like a meandering river for some reason. Louise Marshall, a jazz and soul singer originally from Oldham in Lancashire, is an artist capable of subtle interpretations whilst giving a hint of the vocal power beneath. She has recorded another song about a place, the Jools Holland-penned I Went By, a ballad inspired by a visit to Newport in South Wales. It could be overblown and mawkish in the wrong hands  – here it leaves a haunting poignancy.
Waterloo Bridge, also recorded with Jools Holland, is an example too of another sub-genre, an example where a poem has been turned into a song, in this case After The Lunch by Wendy Cope and first published as part of the Poems on the Underground. Musicians have often fancied themselves as Romantic poets: both Marc Bolan and Pete Doherty, for example, produced poetry alongside their songs. It is less common to be equally valid  as poet and musician, (just as there haven’t been that many examples of artists equally valid as musician and actor).  Leonard Cohen, whose Suzanne first appeared as a poem; Patti Smith; Roger McGough, whose poems ran alongside his musical work with The Scaffold for a while. His Summer with Monika remains an oddity of the first summer of love of 1967, in a parallel universe from Lily the Pink.
There have also been fewer examples of poems being turned into songs  or hit records than one might expect (by which I mean works first written as poems  and then put to music, as opposed to a genre such as rap which fits words to a particular metrical pattern). The meanderings and shifts of jazz probably suit the structure of poetry best, allowing Cleo Laine to sing Shakespeare. But Leonard Cohen (again) adapted Lorca for Take This Waltz, as already seen in an earlier column. Strange Fruit started as a poem.There were simple but effective musical translations of Alfred Noyes The Highwayman by Phil Ochs and of Yeats’ The Song of Wandering Aengus (Golden Apples of the Sun) by Judy Collins. Natalie Merchant  from 10000 Maniacs sang an Emily Dickinson poem, Because I Could Not Stop For Death.
Waterloo Bridge has appeared before – in the very first column, Terry and Julie presumably crossed over it in Waterloo Sunset. The melancholic observations of that song, or the nostalgia of Jane Birkin’s Waterloo Station, are not present here, however. Instead, the mood is one of optimism and looking forward and the bridge is not there as a grand metaphor but as a familiar backdrop for the meeting of two lovers. Pop music is sometimes tempted by the grandiose vision. War of the Worlds!  The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table! Nostradamus Part 1! Yet the most effective image  can be the small-scale and familiar – like a black woolly glove on Waterloo Bridge.
Another London bridge - Battersea Bridge -  in Grief Came Riding, was the setting for “the weight of a thousand people leaving  or returning home to their failures , to their boredoms” On Waterloo Bridge the narrator is tempted to skip with the wind in her hair. The view from the bridge, as with most places, depends on who is looking.


  1. This made me laugh a lot, Geoff: "And cross-roads, too –how symbolic are they!. T junctions less so, though." I agree, there is nothing symbolic about a T junction!

  2. Ah you mentioned one of my favorite poems! Here it is, for other poetry fans:

    Wordsworth: "Composed upon Westminster Bridge"

    Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty:
    This City now doth like a garment wear

    The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

    Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

    The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
    And all that mighty heart is lying still!

  3. I love that Natalie Merchant song - here is for others to listen to: http://www.nataliemerchant.com/l/retrospective/because-i-could-not-stop-for-death (it starts playing automatically)........

  4. The album No Promises by Carla Bruni includes three poems by Emily Dickinson as well
    "I Felt My Life With Both My Hands"
    "I Went To Heaven"
    "If You Were Coming In The Fall"

  5. The commentary on musicians trying to be poets is really interesting. I have always been fascinated by this choice of other people's poems for lyrics, and I bet if we checked there would be very few pre 1960s poems featured in the songs - musicians seem to gravitate towards Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, etc. Presumably because of this grandiose vision you describe, Geoff.

  6. I totally agree with this Geoff: 'Pop music is sometimes tempted by the grandiose vision. War of the Worlds! The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table! Nostradamus Part 1! Yet the most effective image can be the small-scale and familiar – like a black woolly glove on Waterloo Bridge'.

  7. I love your 'grandiose' examples. For more, there is also In Requiem for a Dream by Clint Mansell, and Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

  8. But the most grandiose pop song in the world, ever, has to be The Final Countdown.

  9. Thought you would enjoy this parody of the grandiose! :)


  10. In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson has to one of the most epic, grandiose things ever.

  11. Grandiose? Anything by Meatloaf.

  12. I have always thought that The Mariner's Revenge Song by the Decemberists was pretty grandiose.

  13. And surely we can all agree that David Bowie - Life On Mars is the definition of grandiose.

  14. Knights of Cydonia, by Muse, is very grandiose too. I listen to this in the car and narrate an epic battle scene.

  15. And Death is the Road to Awe by Clint Mansell too. Grandiosity!

  16. Epitaph by King Crimson too.

  17. Sigur Ros - Ara Batur. Both epic and grandiose. Made me cry a couple times.

  18. Queen - The Prophet's Song is very grandiose, although for some reason it doesn't get anywhere near the attention Bohemian Rhapsody receives. It is so grandiose that whenever I hear it, I fantasize is that it is played at my funeral, preferably with helicopters lowering my body into my grave. But as soon as I'm in the ground, I punch through my coffin, crawl out, and call an army of zombies/terminators to rise up and fight with me against tyranny. It also makes me think that I would like to be buried on a cliff overlooking the sea.

  19. I think the problem with all of the songs mentioned points to the problem with all such grandiose pop music, which is that it just trying to be classical music. These are songs trying to update Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries or Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture or Verdi's Requiem or "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" or Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, and sometimes sampling from these and other sweeping symphonies. Whereas the best pop music just does what it does best, which is to tell intimate, understated stories, not attempt the equivalent of the cannons in the 1812 Overture. Only when musicians stop thinking they are Tchaikovsky and embrace the beauties of their storytelling, community-creating genre, rather than trying to 'perform' like a orchestra to an imagined audience of very important people in tuxedos, do we get real, lasting pop classics, I think.

  20. I like the part of your column about poetry, in particular Geoff. For another example, there is the song A Bad Dream by Keane, which is is based on the William Yeats poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death".

  21. Good example Mike! And the Yeats poems "Those Dancing Days Are Gone" and "Before the World Was Made" are both performed by Carla Bruni on the album No Promises.

  22. And then of course Donovan has set many poems to music:
    "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll
    "Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll
    "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" by Eugene Field
    "Queen Mab" by Thomas Hood
    "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Edward Lear

  23. Kate McGarry performs E.E. Cummings' poem "I Carry Your Heart" on her album If Less Is More... Nothing Is Everything, which is a bit more of a recent example (not so much of the 19th century poetry adaptations).

  24. The compilation album When Love Speaks features several of Shakespeare's works set to music:

    "When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes" performed by Rufus Wainwright (Sonnet 29)
    "No more be grieved at that which thou hast done" performed by Keb' Mo' (Sonnet 35)
    "The quality of mercy is not strained" performed by Des'ree (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1)
    "The Willow Song" performed by Barbara Bonney (Othello, Act IV, scene 3)
    "Music to hear, why hearst thou music sadly" performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Sonnet 8)
    "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" performed by Bryan Ferry (Sonnet 18)

  25. Theodore Roethke's poem "The Waking" has been recorded by Kurt Elling on his album Nightmoves.

  26. Annie Lennox performed part of "Live With Me and Be My Love" by Christopher Marlowe (later borrowed by Shakespeare) for the album When Love Speaks

  27. For poems, don't forget Rime of the ancient mariner by Iron Maiden

  28. Here's the great song by Half Man Half Biscuit, Upon Westminster Bridge, that Geoff mentioned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veMK0u3bWyo

  29. This is one of my favourite songs, The Pogues, Misty Morning, Albert Bridge, which Geoff mentioned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TejJDFt6Tkk

  30. For those who haven't seen it, here's the ending to The Bridge on the River Kwai, complete with lots of shots of the (very symbolic) bridge itself:


  31. Thank you for mentioning my song From Vauxhall to Lambeth Bridge. Of course that part of the embankment, the stretch Vauxhall to Lambeth Bridge, is a lovely part of the river to walk along now that there's the Millennium Wheel and the Tate Modern all along the South Bank.

    I'm not sure if you are a jazz listener but you might like my album from earlier this year with Martin Archer: Tales of Finin.

    Julie (Tippetts / Driscoll)

  32. I am from Devon and I remember feeling really disappointed when Art Garfunkel said in 2003 that Bridge Over Troubled Water wasn't about Bickleigh Bridge. In an interview with the BBCs' Radio Devon he said: "No, I'm sorry about that. Bridge Over Troubled Water is a gospel phrase which Paul took from a gospel group. It was in a Baptist church hymn. He liked the phrase and he used it". I haven't been able to listen to that song since!

  33. Here is that darned bridge, in all its non-Garfunkled glory! - http://www.flickr.com/photos/52841951@N05/5086342621/sizes/l/in/photostream/

  34. I bet you did sketch it Geoff, I have tried a few times myself - here is the latest: http://www.redbubble.com/people/hawkie/works/5923279-bickleigh-bridge

  35. For some reason I had never made the connection between Roger McGough the poet (whose poem we did in school, "First Day at School", the one that ends "I think my name is sewn on somewhere / Perhaps the teacher will read it for me. / Tea-cher. The one who makes the tea") and the music of The Scaffold! But of course, he was one of the ones singing Lily the Pink, wasn't he?!

  36. I had never heard I Went By by Louise Marshall, but it's gorgeous - thank you so much Geoff!

  37. I like how Waterloo bridge and station are basically your spiritual home and compass point Geoff. Did you realise this before you started this blog, or were you surprised at how much you (and all of us) have to say about that particular area? Maybe we all have a place like that, one that we return to imaginatively and interpret many different ways. For me it is Hampstead Heath.

  38. Here are the lyrics to the song Geoff posted (from the poem After the Lunch by Wendy Cope)

    On Waterloo Bridge, where we said our goodbyes,
    the weather conditions bring tears to my eyes.
    I wipe them away with a black woolly glove
    And try not to notice I’ve fallen in love.

    On Waterloo Bridge I am trying to think:
    This is nothing. you’re high on the charm and the drink.
    But the juke-box inside me is playing a song
    That says something different. And when was it wrong?

    On Waterloo Bridge with the wind in my hair
    I am tempted to skip. You’re a fool. I don’t care.
    the head does its best but the heart is the boss-
    I admit it before I am halfway across.

  39. Geoff, do you know the film Waterloo Bridge from 1940? I haven't seen it, but am inspired to watch it after this week's blog. Do you recommend the 1940 version, or the original 1931 version?

  40. I haven't seen either film, I am afraid!
    I am not sure why Waterloo keeps cropping up, either!

    Thanks for the link to your new album, Julie.

  41. Thanks - Great post, just wish you’d post a bit more often!
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