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.
“Cold Wind to Valhalla,” Jethro Tull
No specific songs are mentioned in Chapter 17, but given the epic battle about to start and the first death dedicated to Odin (by Loki), “Cold Wind to Valhalla” seems like a good fit, here. Ian Anderson’s lyrics even include the line “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately”—and with Shadow out of the picture throughout this chapter, the feeling is apt, as it seems that chaos and death are imminent….
“The Ballad of Sam Bass,” Traditional folk song
Technically, Gaiman quotes the commentary on this song, and not the song itself, at the start of Chapter 18, to underscore the distinction between truth, reality, and metaphor, and the idea that “none of this is happening…never a word of it is literally true, although it all happened.” The singer’s commentary, from A Treasury of American Folklore, states “You can’t allus have things like they are in poetry. Poetry ain’t what you’d call truth. There ain’t room enough in the verses.” So I thought I’d include the song, performed here by the great Alan Lomax, to get a sense of what the poetry gives us, instead of truth, and because Sam Bass fits so well with Whiskey Jack’s description of a “culture hero,” which seem to go over better in America than gods do.
Sam Bass certainly ranks up there with Johnny Appleseed, John Henry, and Casey Jones, except that rather than being celebrated for straightforward heroism, he became legend as an outlaw who captured the popular imagination. Bass was a real life figure, like John Chapman and Jones, who perpetrated a string of robberies in the late 1870s, most notably the robbery of the Union Pacific gold train in 1877. He managed to elude the Texas Rangers until Jim Murphy, a member of his gang, turned informant—however, while the song depicts Murphy as driven by greed, he was actually being blackmailed by lawmen who held his ailing, elderly father in custody. Murphy turned traitor in order to save his father, who was dying in prison without medical treatment.
But that’s not what the song is about, obviously—it’s about a young, good-looking outlaw, depicted as a happy-go-lucky Robin Hood figure, murdered by an unnamed “they” with the help of a scheming Judas (who will no doubt be punished for his sins when he dies, while Sam Bass presumably drinks free whiskey up in Cowboy Heaven). Now, he’s clearly not a culture hero on the level of Whiskey Jack, but his story, in this form, still exists in the popular imagination over 130 years after his death—he’s not worshipped, but he’s remembered. Or at least the romantic idea he represents, of a young, brash, outlaw brought low before his time is remembered, regardless of historical “truth.”
“Thunderbird,” Quiet Riot
As you’ll see if you watch the video, “Thunderbird,” is known as a tribute to former Quiet Riot guitarist Randy Rhoads, who died in a horrible airplane accident at the age of 25 (just two years younger than Sam Bass, in fact). The song was actually written for Rhoads before his death; singer Kevin DuBrow added the final verse after the fact.
I’d heard the song before starting this project, but didn’t know the backstory until I started researching potential tracks for the Mix Tape. The more I think about it, the more it seems to encapsulate Shadow’s connection with the thunderbird, and his realization that eagle stones aren’t a simple magical solution to his problems, but a violent act of sacrifice that Shadow is unwilling to consider. The elegiac tone also seems fitting for a chapter that is full of goodbyes, from Shadow’s final confrontation with Wednesday to his last moments with Laura—it’s a song about mourning and moving on, which Shadow is finally able to do after the storm has finally passed.
Bonus track: “City of Dreams,” Talking Heads
This is a song I’ve been tempted to include at various points in the reread—the lyrics just fit so well thematically with the novel as a whole—but since we’ve finally reached Whiskey Jack’s explanation of how America works, on a spiritual level (avocados and wild rice and all), I thought it was finally time to add “City of Dreams” into the mix. I wish I could have found a live version, or at least one which features the lyrics, but even without visuals, the song should resonate with fans of American Gods, Whiskey Jack, and the buffalo man. Enjoy, and maybe keep this song in mind for Chapter 19, when the buffalo man resurfaces to give Shadow his well-deserved pat on the back….
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. For some reason, most of the songs she knows that reference “Thunderbird” are either about cars or booze.