As a side project to our American Gods Reread, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at all the various songs quoted and referenced throughout the novel. Every epic adventure deserves an epic soundtrack, after all, and Neil Gaiman knows a thing or two about great music, so: whenever a song pops up in the text, I’ll be here to discuss each track in the context of the novel and theorize wildly about the connections between song and story.
For the most part, I’m planning to stick with songs that actually appear in the book, but as we progress with the reread I’ll be keeping an ear out for tunes that fit too well to be ignored, and I’m hoping you’ll help me out with suggestions in the comments: if there’s a song or artist that needs to be added to the list, let me know! By the end of the novel, we’ll hopefully have created a divinely inspired mega-mix worthy of Wednesday himself, featuring everything from rock and roll and the blues to show tunes and karaoke standards….
As with the reread, all page numbers mentioned correspond to American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text) and there are spoilers below the fold. Please feel free to pump up the volume.
No songs are mentioned during Shadow’s long, dark night of the soul at the Motel America, although I feel like a little “Heartbreak Hotel” might be in order, under the circumstances. Keeping in mind that the lyrics were inspired by a suicide note, and that everyone thought Elvis was crazy for recording a “morbid mess” of a song until it became his first #1 hit…what better soundtrack to a chapter that centers on infidelity, death, fallen idols, and a late night pizza binge? (I’m assuming the motel didn’t have fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.)
Depending on your mood, you can always go with Elvis’s original, John Cage’s intense primal scream of a cover, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell’s more upbeat version…or even Spinal Tap’s well-intentioned attempt at an a cappella tribute.
While it might be a bit on-the-nose, I think I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Led Zeppelin’s classic “Immigrant Song” in conjunction with the events of the “Coming to America” interlude at the chapter’s end:
“Immigrant Song,” Led Zeppelin
I’m going to be a responsible blogger here and go with this handy YouTube tribute to Viking culture, filled with visually-nutritious Norse Mythology and random chunks of Odin-y goodness—rather than just embedding the infamous Viking Kittens and watching them pillage over and over. That’s right: I make the tough choices, so let’s all contemplate how well the song captures the singleminded focus and fearsome tenacity of the Viking raiders, the wild cry to Valhalla (which jibes rather morbidly with our fictional raiding party’s eventual slaughter by the scraelings), the gore and war and god-hammers and glory…and maybe not so much on the peace and trust winning the day stuff, which might sound like a good idea to Robert Plant, but not so much for Odin….
That said, I highly recommend you all take some time to watch the Viking Kittens. Over and over.
“Midnight Special,” Traditional song, (Page 65)
Gaiman uses the chorus of this folk song—traditionally thought to have originated with prisoners in the South—to introduce Chapter 4, as Wednesday and Shadow hit the open road and set out for Chicago, the Zorya and Czernobog.
Lead Belly wasn’t the first artist to record the song, but he did much to popularize it, particularly with his first recording of the song at Angola Prison (where he was, of course, an inmate) in 1934. John and Alan Lomax, the great field collectors of American folk, recorded the Angola session and later interpreted the song’s lyrics in terms of a desire for salvation, with the light of the train (the Midnight Special, rolling past the prison walls) standing in for divine/spiritual redemption. In a sense, this is in keeping with Shadow’s encounter with the midnight sister, Zorya Polunochnaya, and the light of the moon that she plucks from the sky and gives to him for protection….
On the other hand, Chicago’s own Carl Sandburg included the first two published versions of the song in The American Songbag (1921), and had a different, darker reading: that the protagonist of the song would prefer to be run down by a train than spend another day enduring the monotony of prison life. Dark, Carl. And yet this interpretation also reflects Shadow’s state of mind in the chapter, as he agrees to Czernobog’s deadly wager: “He was not scared of dying. After all, it was not as if he had anything left to live for.” (p. 75). Not quite the same as fantasizing about throwing yourself in front of a train, but not that far off—Shadow might not be in prison anymore, but he’s broken, alienated from himself, lost, and being knocked around by forces beyond his control, so he’s not exactly embracing freedom, either.
I used this particular Lead Belly version of “Midnight Special” because it’s the simplest, most straightforward arrangement I could find, but I’ll always associate this song with the movie Cool Hand Luke since that’s where I heard it first, in the scene in which a young Harry Dean Stanton sings it in the prison yard, providing moral support for Luke (Paul Newman) as the prison bosses try to break him down. If you haven’t seen it, it’s amazing. I’d also highly recommend Little Richard’s cover, which tears the roof off the song and pretty much sets it on fire—I don’t hear it nearly as often as the Creedence or Van Morrison versions…and that’s a damn shame.
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Bob Dylan, Page 67
Given all the talk of the “coming storm” in American Gods, this song would almost have to pop up sooner or later: Dylan’s all-encompassing, incantatory vision of doom isn’t so much a protest song as it is a catchy, Old Testament-style prophecy of destruction. Between all the references to death, bloody branches, bleeding hammers, and wolves, I can only assume Wednesday was humming along smugly the whole time.
Even the structure of the song itself—the initial questions starting each verse and then the list of horrors in response, each one almost more of a riddle than an answer—reminds me of Wednesday’s characteristic inscrutability, and the way he recites his eighteen charms to Shadow later on (in Chapter 10). And of course, the fact that the song is structured as a parent addressing a son has a certain significance, given Shadow and Wednesday’s familial relationship (still unknown to Shadow, as they road-trip toward Chicago).
I picked this particular video over some of the more mellow, folkier renditions because it captures some of the manic urgency and almost punk energy that underlies the song (at least for me). I’ll always lean more toward punk and glam rock than I do toward folk, and I have quite a weakness for Bryan Ferry’s cover of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (it’s just so intense and over the top, I can’t help it)—but if this isn’t your speed, Dylan’s 1971 performance of the song at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh is deservedly legendary.
Night On Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky/Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Again, while this piece doesn’t appear anywhere in the actual text of the novel, what better way to introduce the kids to Czernobog? As I mentioned over in the reread post, I was majorly obsessed with Fantasia as a little kid, and the Night on Bald Mountain segment was always the freaky, demon-riddled cherry on top of the whole glorious cinematic sundae. Besides being one of pinnacles of Disney animation (and blowing the tiny minds of countless children lulled into complacency by Mickey Mouse and his shtick with a bunch of brooms), this sequence introduced Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition, based on Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain into popular culture, immortalizing a certain “black god” of Slavonic origin in the process. (If you can immortalize a god. You know what I mean).
So: Chernabog, as it’s spelled in the Disney version, rises from the peak of Bald Mountain at midnight to summon his malevolent minions for some wild, even orgiastic Walpurgis Night revelry, until dawn shows up and harshes everyone’s demonic buzz. The representation of Chernabog here shows obvious Christian influence—he’s basically Satan, complete with horns and wings, and even looks heavenward, raising his arms almost beseechingly, in the final moments before dawn. In actual Slavic mythology, however, there’s really no proof that Chernobog functioned as a Satanic figure or the embodiment of all evil, as he appears in Disney-vision.
While Gaiman’s Czernobog is certainly dark, as befitting a black god, he seems to relate more to blood and death (both of which are an inescapable, natural part of life) rather than malevolence, mischief, or even suffering—if anything, he’s all about the quick kill, the single blow of a hammer. He might be in tune with the darker side of existence, but not in an unnatural, perverse, truly evil way—I’m not saying I want to go bowling with the guy, but he’s not so bad, as the old gods go.
So there’s a lot of distance between Chernabog, the Lord of Naked Satan Fire Party Mountain and Czernobog, the bathrobe-wearing Chicago cow-killer extraordinaire, but if I were Czernobog, I would definitely make this my theme music, regardless. Maybe carry around a boombox and just blast Night on Bald Mountain any time I entered a room. And on the subway. You could do a lot worse, as theme music goes….
Bonus track: “I Have the Moon,” The Magnetic Fields
Finally, because I think we deserve a unicorn chaser after so much gloom and doom: “I Have the Moon,” a song about a vampire in love with a non-vampire that I’ve repurposed here for reasons that I hope are fairly obvious. Laura has the sun-coin, Shadow has his silver moon-dollar, she’s dead (but still around), he’s alive (but arguably dead inside)—they’re about as star-crossed as lovers can get; they basically have their own solar system of dysfunction.
So I dedicate this song to them; I know Gaiman was listening to 69 Love Songs while he was writing American Gods, but this track is from my own favorite Magentic Fields’ album, The Charm of the Highway Strip, which in some ways fits this novel just as well. Stephin Merritt’s sweet, sad lyrics and vocals on this song just seemed like a perfect note on which to end this installment.
So that’s it for this week—I hope you’ll chime in with your own suggestions and let me know if you would have gone with different songs, different versions or covers, or just sound off about the ones above!
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com; she knows that they probably don’t sell boomboxes anymore, but let her have her weird Czernobog fantasy.