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.
In the Dark With You, Greg Brown (Page 375)
In his acknowledgments at the end of American Gods, Neil Gaiman credits two specific albums without which “it would have been a different book.” One is The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, and the other is Dream Café by Greg Brown, and of course a verse from the second song on that latter album serves as an epigraph to Chapter 14. It is also (full disclosure) the only song mentioned in the novel that I had zero familiarity with before beginning this series. I’ve liked The Magnetic Fields since I was in high school, I’ve seen them many times, and I can probably quote most of the songs on 69 Love Songs from memory, but Greg Brown is totally new to me, although he’s clearly something of a songwriting legend. So please forgive my ignorance on this one, but at least I was able to finally track the song down on YouTube.
As for being alone in the dark…it seems like that’s the last thing Shadow wants, in this chapter (it’s definitely the last thing the Technical Boy wants, now that Bilquis’s curse seems to have really taken hold). But in the sense of being lost, searching, uncertain…this is probably the darkest chapter in the book, between the death of Wednesday and Shadow’s vigil on the tree.
“Magic Bus,” The Who
Picturing Czernobog, Nancy, and Wednesday chugging all over the country in 1970 VW bus like a bunch of Not-At-All-Merry Pranksters makes me so happy, from the minute Czernobog sees it and says, “So what happens when the police pull us over, looking for the hippies, and the dope? Eh? We are not here to ride the magic bus. We are to blend in.”
As ridiculous as that mental image is, though, it’s the description of poor Shadow having to man the bus’s radio, negotiating between Nancy’s fondness for dance and talk radio and Czernobog’s taste for gloomy classical and evangelical preachers that always sticks with me. Shadow himself likes “oldies,” and while I’d file The Who under classic rock, I figure it’s close enough that he’d appreciate the break from all the noise. Plus, given their last names, he and Keith Moon could be related—I’ve always just assumed that Keith wasn’t totally human, although if I had to come up with a supernatural categorization for him, I’d probably go with “demonic muppet” over demigod. But who knows?
“I’ve Been All Around This World,” Traditional song (Page 408)
A verse from this traditional song begins Chapter 15, as Shadow hangs from the world tree, in relative comfort at first, then in increasing pain which gives way to unbearable agony. I was hoping to find a version of the song that was a bit darker, or at least a little less mellow than the Dead’s version, but what the hell: it’s a song about hanging (and possibly threatening someone named Lulu with a gun?), so it’s going to be pretty dark no matter who’s singing it.
Unfortunately, this version doesn’t contain the lyric “I wouldn’t mind the hangin’, it’s bein’ gone on so long,/It’s lyin’ in the grave so long” which once again, seems to express the opposite of Shadow’s experience. The hanging is definitely the bigger problem here, as he writhes in pain against the knots that bind him...and once he finally passes into the darkness of the afterlife, he learns that nothing truly ends. (Not even nothing).
“Death is Not the End,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
The last song on the revelatory album Murder Ballads, “Death is Not the End” features Nick Cave’s reworking of a Bob Dylan song which first appeared as an outtake on the album Infidel, when Dylan was just coming out of his intensely religious, Christian phase. The imagery here just seems so perfectly in tune with the events of the novel at this point, from the darkness and uncertainty and violence to the “tree of life,” that I had to include it on the mix.
Cave recruited PJ Harvey, Kylie Minogue, Anita Lane, and Shane MacGowan, along with Bad Seeds Blixa Bargeld and Thomas Wydler to sing on this version of the song, contrasting the sweetness of the women’s voices with the rough, slurred, and sinister performances of the men as they trade verses, and the effect is creepy and unsettling and amazing. As the song crescendos into a glorious gothic hullabaloo, it’s impossible to tell whether the promise of the song’s title is meant as a statement of faith or as a threat…but however it was intended, it fits both Shadow and Wednesday like a glove (or a shroud) at the moment.
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She shares a birthday with Charlie Watts, but has always had a thing for Keith Moon.