Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


The PJ Harvey song inspired by fearsome writer Flannery O’Connor


English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey exists in that powerful alternative 90s pop-rock circle alongside Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Amanda Palmer, and so many others who deliver hauntingly beautiful lyrics over their highly capable instrumentation. 

With songs like ‘Down by the Water’, ‘This Is Love’, and ‘This Mess We’re In’, it’s easy to hear her talent and songwriting capability loud and clear. As with other artists like her, it’s always interesting to dig into their inspirations. While PJ Harvey has found a number of peers and icons to admire in the music world, she also has been known to take lyrical inspiration from other art forms beyond music.

Harvey has found inspiration in literature many times before, with J.D. Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish inspiring her song ‘A Perfect Day Elise’ and her naming Harold Pinter, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Ted Hughes (hey, not everything we say ages well) as inspirations.

Another easter egg that fans may be curious to learn is that the artist also has a song inspired by the work of American novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor. The song ‘The River’ actually takes lines and concepts directly from O’Connor’s short story, which also happens to be titled “The River.”

Flannery O’Connor often wrote about the American South and was most famous for her short stories, of which The River was one of the most successful.

The story centres around a little boy whose babysitter takes him to a Christian meeting at a river where people are being baptised. He agrees to be baptised there so his parents will finally notice him and pay attention to him. In an excerpt of the story, O’Connor describes, “‘If I Baptise you,’ the preacher said, ‘you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?’ ‘Yes,’ the child said and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river. ‘You won’t be the same again,’ the preacher said.”

You can see the inspiration in the lines from the short story, “All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea, and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin. It’s a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet.” 

These words make their way into the song as the lyrics, “Throw your pain in the river/ Leave your pain in the river/ To be washed away slow.”

Although the words in this song are simple enough, even the tonality and instrumentation in the song speak to the literary roots, with the sombre piano opening carrying through the rest of the dark tune. This is one of those songs that rocks with a ’90s-early 2000s energy, but also could find itself fitting in 1953 besides its literary companion.

PJ Harvey always utilises her literary inspirations well, coming up with brilliant lyricism and intriguing songwriting that simply reels the listener in. And she’s one of many singers that will take you straight to English class. If you’re hungry for more, look no further than Lana Del Rey, Kate Bush, Modest Mouse, and even Harry Styles for more of the same energy.

If you want to check out the PJ Harvey song that Flannery O’Connor inspired, you can find it right here.