As a side project to our newly launched 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.
Chapters 1 & 2:
“Walkin’ After Midnight,” Patsy Cline (Pages 24, 32)
A pop/country classic, Patsy Cline’s bluesy standard greets Shadow at Jack’s Crocodile Bar, encapsulating his lost, lonesome, benumbed state in the wake of Laura’s death. The song also foreshadows (no pun intended) the fact that his lost love will actually come a-walking after midnight, searching for him soon (in Chapter 3, to be exact). Not sure that’s quite what Patsy and the songwriters had in mind, but what can you do?
“Iko Iko,” The Dixie Cups (Pages 29-30)
A traditional Mardi Gras song incorporating the Creole patois of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians, the song details a confrontation between two “tribes”—possibly hinting at the coming war between the Old and New gods? Discussing the song’s history, musician Doctor John writes that the tribes traditionally included “musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps,” (who would fit right in with Wednesday and his cronies) and that its original title, “Jockamo” refers to a jester/joker figure of myth and legend (who perhaps started out as some sort of local trickster god?)
Furthermore, the context of Mardi Gras is interesting here on the brink of Shadow’s partnership with Wednesday, eating meat and drinking mead to seal the deal, before the next day’s funeral and the beginning of their strange journey (ending in death and resurrection)—one could argue that the Mardi Gras tune is a clever way of signaling the trial and sacrifice to come, just as “Fat Tuesday” and carnival are immediately followed by Lent…which begins, traditionally, on Ash Wednesday.
“Who Loves the Sun,” The Velvet Underground (Page 36)
Mad Sweeney plays this song on the jukebox at Jack’s; Shadow thinks it “a strange song to find on a jukebox. It seemed very unlikely.” Of course, this thought is followed by their discussion of coin tricks, which ultimately leads to Shadow leaving the bar with a very special gold coin from the leprechaun’s horde. We later learn that Shadow has somehow taken the sun (“life itself,” “fit for the King of America”) and his gift of it to Laura keeps her undead. In the meantime, Lou Reed’s acerbic drawl and poppy, perversely sunny nihilism seems like a perfect (if faintly mocking) accompaniment to Shadow’s melancholy mood: “Who cares about the sun, or flowers, or even immortality-granting magic talismans since you broke my heart?” Sad.
“The Fool on the Hill,” The Beatles (Page 41)
Hungover and bruised from his fight with Mad Sweeney, Shadow recognizes a “tinny” version of “The Fool on the Hill” playing in the gas station bathroom where he cleans himself up. Everyone has their pet theory of who or what this song is about—popular favorites include Galileo, Jesus, and George Harrison. Paul McCartney, who actually wrote it, mentioned the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: “I think I was writing about someone like Maharishi. His detractors called him a fool. Because of his giggle he wasn’t taken too seriously.”
Maybe the song showing up when it does points toward Wednesday, and the fact that he’s far more than the elderly con man he appears to be. Maybe the tinny Muzak being piped into the bathroom is the new gods having a laugh at poor, hungover Shadow (if there’s a god of Muzak, let’s just be thankful he doesn’t show up to torment us further, along with his henchman/acolyte, Kenny G). Or maybe Neil Gaiman just heard the song somewhere on his travels and wrote it into the book? But it’s not the last time the Beatles make an appearance....
Bonus track: “Shadow and Jimmy,” Was (Not Was); (cowritten by Elvis Costello & David Was)
The source of our protagonist’s name, according to Gaiman’s essay “All Books Have Gender,” because “Shadow” seemed like the right fit for the character. And who doesn’t love Elvis Costello? For the record, Costello himself refers to the song as “a bit of a mystery to me,” an experiment that resulted in “a chilly tale of two strange fish”—which arguably makes it the perfect selection to round out this first installment of our Wednesday Mix Tape.
I’m tempted to add in a video for “Reptile” by The Church, if only because I can never read the scene with The Technical Boy without it getting stuck in my head (and because, frankly, it’s awesome), but that’s probably just me, right? So that’s it for this week’s songs, but I’d love to hear some alternate readings, additional trivia, song suggestions and tips for next week, so sound off in the comments!