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.
Since Chapters 7 and 8 don’t contain any specific song references, there was no new post last week, but for the sake of completeness (and because there was a request in the comments, and I live to please!), I’ve included a few tracks for those chapters below. Hope you enjoy!
“TV Eye,” The Stooges
Given Shadow’s conversation with the opposition in the form of Lucy Ricardo and all the references to old television shows throughout the chapter (and the novel as a whole), Black Flag’s “TV Party” admittedly popped into my head once or twice, but something about Iggy Pop’s orgiastic, paranoid primal scream session here just fit too perfectly. As with the Lucy encounter, aggression and sex and voyeurism are all mangled together in the lyrics and the raw feel of the song, as Iggy grunts and growls like an escaped maniac who’s convinced he’s Howling Wolf. One of the best songs, off of one of the best albums ever; if the TV ever starts talking to you, I recommend listening loudly to Fun House on repeat. It probably won’t solve the problem entirely, but at least you’ll be in good company….
I haven’t been able to settle for an ideal song for any of the early parts of this chapter, as Shadow settles in with Ibis, Jacquel and Bast. I’ve already suggested that Bast must be a fan of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” which Bowie wrote with Giorgio Moroder; it’s certainly slinky and intense in a way that seems to suit her interactions with Shadow. Also, I never say no to putting Bowie on a mix. But I was trying to come up with a song that fit the action in a more general, and just ended up with a random selection of songs that mention Cairo or Egypt: from The Cure’s “Fire in Cairo” to Madness’s “Night Boat to Cairo” to “Egyptian Reggae” by Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, all of which I enjoy, even if they don’t really connect to anything specific in the text. There’s also “Egypt” by Kate Bush, though I’ve never really been able to get into her music, over the years (I know, Kate Bush fans. I’m sorry!). So take your pick, if any of those options appeal to you and you’d like some sort of soundtrack to our hero’s adventures in Little Egypt on the Mississippi.
The main event in this chapter, however, is clearly Mad Sweeney’s wake (which as someone pointed out last week, really deserves its own mix tape). Oddly enough, I just came across an article published last Saturday on traditional Irish wakes detailing all the odd games and pranks used to pass the time, if anyone’s interested – but for me, it’s all about the music, and while “Danny Boy” is great, I think Mad Sweeney deserves a sendoff that’s a bit more raucous:
“Sally MacLennane,” The Pogues
As I mentioned in the comments last week, I chose this particular track because I‘m hugely fond of it, but also because of the lyrics: “Some people they are scared to croak, but Jimmy drank until he choked / And he took the road for heaven in the morning.” Given the manner of Mad Sweeney’s demise, it just seems fitting, as does the chorus about sending him (Jimmy) on his way with drinks and good wishes. On the other hand, commenter Sittemio suggested “The Body of an American,” an equally magnificent Pogues song (one you’ll know if you’ve seen The Wire), which fits the spirit of Mad Sweeney and his mad wake quite well.
By the same token, commenter Crumley mentioned the Dropkick Murphys’ “Your Spirit’s Alive” along with the Flogging Molly songs “Us of Lesser Gods”and “Speed of Darkness” – all of which, again, seem like wonderful additions to any proper Jameson-fueled leprechaun wake. Hell, I’d even through in a couple of older songs, just for good measure: maybe a bit of “The Irish Rover,” and/or “Whiskey in the Jar.” Best Wake Ever, you guys.
“Little Drummer Boy,” Performed by Grace Jones (Page 208)
And now back to some songs actually mentioned in the text, starting with the festive soundtrack to Shadow and Wednesday’s Christmas lunch-plus-casual- waitress-seduction. I’m going to be honest, here: I hate “The Little Drummer Boy.” It’s one of my least favorite Christmas carols, and I think I’m still scarred from watching the weird Rankin/Bass animated special based on the song. Then again, it’s been recorded by everybody from Marlene Dietrich to Jimi Hendrix to Johnny Cash to Joan Jett (not to mention the amazing Bowie duet with Bing Crosby), so maybe it’s just me.
The thing is, watching Grace Jones slither her way through the song on Pee Wee Herman’s Christmas Special might have made me fall in love with the song in spite of myself. It’s a Christmas miracle! In terms of what “The Little Drummer Boy” means in relation to the novel: the reference itself is pretty slight, but it’s possibly a nod toward Shadow’s penchant for giving all he has to give, again and again. He’s already offered his life in the wager with Czernobog; he’s about to offer himself again to the earth in his vision on the Greyhound, in order to help Laura; finally, he’ll sacrifice himself by holding Wednesday’s vigil. Beat that, Little Drummer Boy.
For what it’s worth, something tells me Wednesday would have been more into Clarence Carter’s immortal “Backdoor Santa” than any of the other holiday tunes Gaiman might have chosen….
“Tango Till They’re Sore,” Tom Waits (Page 231)
Chapter 10 kicks off with a quote from the chorus: “I’ll tell you all my secrets/But I lie about my past/So send me off to bed for evermore” – and of course, this sentiment applies to nearly everyone in Lakeside. Shadow is pretending to be Mike Ainsel, and getting more and more comfortable being someone else by the day. Hinzelmann, the folksy raconteur par excellence, obviously has more than a few skeletons lurking in his creepy Teutonic closet. Wednesday lies to everyone, all the time. And even the friendly, neighborly people of Lakeside seem to know deep down that there’s a dark secret at the heart of their perfect community, and that they’re paying a price for their continued safety and prosperity.
I love Tom Waits, and the entire Rain Dogs album, and while I have no idea what this song is actually about, that’s part of what makes it great: it’s like a jazz funeral and a New Year’s Eve party both ended up trapped in a broken-down vaudeville theater, and violence could break out at any second. Or maybe just dancing. You never know with a Tom Waits song. If you’re interested, there’s also this clip from a performance on Letterman – the sound quality’s not the greatest, but it’s still pretty fun.
“Winter Wonderland,” performed by Darlene Love (Page 233)
Shadow starts humming this, “[a]n old song his mother had loved,” just as he starts to realize that walking into Lakeside in dangerously low temperatures might have been a huge mistake. When faced with danger or the unknown, he seems to habitually think back to memories of his mother for comfort, which is really quite sweet; it’s interesting what a presence she is, in the novel, even though we don’t really see her in action or get too many specifics about her life or personality – she’s just never far from Shadow’s mind.
There are so many fantastic versions of this song (from formidable holiday icons like Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis to Radiohead or clips from the rest of Pee Wee’s Play House Christmas Special, which I can’t seem to stop watching), but I ultimately decided to go with Darlene Love for several reasons. Her version’s just so happy and upbeat, and if I were worried about freezing to death, I think I’d want to channel something a little cheerier than Der Bingle or the Boston Pops. Also, there’s been very little Motown in the novel thus far, which is reason enough on its own. And something tells me Phil Spector would have fit right in around Lakeside. Well, not really, but he did compare his style “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll,” and you know who Wagner loved? ODIN. So it all kind of makes sense, if you squint your eyes and look sideways….
“Help!” The Beatles (Page 234)
Thus far in American Gods, we’ve had a Paul McCartney song (“The Fool on the Hill”) and a Ringo song (“Octopus’s Garden”), and now we’ve made it to John Lennon, as Shadow’s situation becomes dire and he really begins to panic, out in the cold. I’ve mentioned before that Gaiman seems to be treating The Beatles as god-like figures, pop culture deities who inspire the same kind of worshipfulness in mere mortals that the older gods are used to commanding, and TorChris recently commented on the Chapters 5 & 6 post about Lennon fitting the god-narrative particularly well, and made a really interesting case…in light of that, I find it fascinating that when faced with mortal peril, Shadow’s mind moves from a memory of his mother directly to “Help!” – at the point that other people might pray, he starts desperately humming a Lennon tune…
It makes sense on multiple levels, and I just really like the whole idea of Beatles songs functioning as prayers. Which is why I’m going to start reciting “Rocky Raccoon” every night before bed. That’s not weird, right?
“One Last Hope,” from Disney’s Hercules, performed by Danny DeVito (Page 247)
I was on the fence about whether to include this, but I think it’s worth noting that Margie Olsen’s son Leon is enthralled by this movie (“an animated satyr stomping and shouting his way across the screen”) when Shadow stops by to introduce himself. I’d love to read it as a clue about whether Shadow is actually a hero, a demigod destined to do great things, like Hercules or Cuchulain, but it might just be an very sly bit of cleverness on Gaiman’s part.
I haven’t seen all of the Disney movie, only bits and pieces, but clearly the idea of a half-god trying to prove himself to his powerful, divine father (in this case, Zeus), is more than a little hilarious when you picture Shadow at the door, cold and confused and just biding his time until Wednesday shows up to boss him around some more. And in the meantime, he’s spending his naptime attempting some kind of crazy vision quest, with thunderbirds and skull-climbing and eagle stones and who knows what else, heroic in spite of Wednesday’s best efforts. It’s a funny bit of business (and also Danny DeVito singing is always kind of hilarious. So that’s a bonus).
“Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley
I couldn’t resist including this ultimate paean to Vegas and its siren song promising good times, fast women, and the chance to win or lose a fortune with every passing minute. “Viva Las Vegas” is a weirdly intense song, for something that seems so silly and campy at first glance—the language invoking fire, stakes, burning, and devils always seemed intentionally dark and ritualistic to me (again, in a campy way)—but that might say more about me having spent too many years in Catholic school amidst morbid tales of martyrdom than it does about poor Elvis, or his songwriters.
I considered using the Dead Kennedys’ cover, but I can’t hear it without thinking of the Johnny Depp version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and while it was perfect in that context, Shadow and Wednesday are into a whole different scene. They might even be in a whole different Vegas, entirely. Plus, the way Elvis dances like some kind of sexy, electrocuted rubber chicken needs to be viewed by as many eyeballs as possible. Between that, and the crazy showgirl costumes, and the fact that the whole thing is a stage show (within a movie)—the levels of fakeness and imitation and performance feel like a tribute to Vegas even without the song itself. It’s amazing.
“Why Can’t He Be You,” Patsy Cline (Page 252)
In Las Vegas, among the gods and the Elvis impersonators, a Muzak version of this song plays, “almost subliminally,” and it’s the second Patsy Cline song we’ve come across, since “Walkin’ After Midnight” played on repeat at Jack’s Crocodile Bar. It’s a standard, and an interesting choice in a place where almost everything is meant to represent something else—a castle, a pyramid, Paris, New York, Real Elvis—where ritual and the rhythmic cycle of loss and gain replace forward motion, progress, real life (at least according to the novel). Perhaps the song is included as a comment on trying to replace something real with something not-quite-real, which might apply to any number of characters and situations in the book (Shadow, Wednesday, Laura, Lakeside, and so on).
Finally, two bonus songs inspired by the interlude at the end of Chapter 11. First up, Shel Silverstein’s take on Marie Laveau, made into a hit by Bobby Bare but first recorded by the always-entertaining Doctor Hook & The Medicine Show:
“Marie Laveau,” Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show
Clearly, the wacky bayou swamp witch of the song has nothing in common with the historical Marie Laveau (although technically there are two: the woman known as the Widow Paris in American Gods, and her daughter, also a famous practitioner of Voudoun). Both Maries were established and influential figures in 19th century New Orleans and their reputations as Voodoo Queens remain part of the fabric and culture of the city.
In the context of a novel about how myths and legends lose power and fade over time, though, I thought it might be interesting to note how a figure like Marie Laveau can be transformed into an object of fun and even ridicule in pop culture, thanks to a song reimagining her as a hideous crackpot who gets taken in by a charming scoundrel. I guess that either Shel Silverstein didn’t believe in Voodoo, or he had a few tricks up his sleeve…
Of course, the story of Wututu (later Mama Zouzou, who passes her knowledge on to the crafty Widow Paris) deserves to be treated with a bit more seriousness than Shel and Dr. Hook can provide. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any spirituals that fit with the story, since the songs I know (“Steal Away,” for example) tend to be specifically Christian, and that tradition isn’t really a part of Wututu’s experience.
I did, however, find a resource relating to the music of the sugar/slave trade in the Caribbean, where her brother Agasu lived out his life after they were split up and sold. In the end, I decided to go with Dr. John (himself a New Orleans fixture), and his catchy/haunting, “Litanie des Saints,” which mentions Obeah and invokes the names of deities of African origin along with Catholic saints) since Voodoo and Santeria liberally mingle elements of both). I’d like to think that the song is kind of a tribute to the staying power of the deities mentioned, including Papa Legba (Ellegua), Oshun, Obatala, Shango, and Baron, most of whom originated in West Africa, as part of the Yoruba religion. They would have been familiar to Wututu, perhaps in different incarnations (the story specifically mentions Elegba, for example), and so I thought I’d end with this chanted song/prayer which celebrates the tradition and the continued presence of these deities in both pop and religious culture. It also really makes me wish I was in New Orleans right now, but that seems to be an inevitable side effect of having Tom Waits and Dr. John on the same playlist…
“Litanie des Saints,” Dr. John
So, that’s all for this week, but as always, please let me know what songs you would have included for these chapters, or which artists and covers you would have picked…I love all the suggestions I’ve been getting so far, so thanks for the feedback!
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She chose to ignore Wednesday’s sarcastic reference to “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” in Chapter 11 and hopes you’ll think of it as a kindness