Magic & Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread

The Complete American Gods Mix Tape

If you’re familiar with Neil Gaiman’s work, then you know that music tends to play an important part in his writing, both on and off the page. This is certainly the case with American Gods, a road trip novel with its own offbeat, colorful soundtrack. When we started our American Gods Reread a few months ago, I decided to keep track of each song mentioned or alluded to in the novel, to see how the music fit in with the events of each week’s chapters. Along the way, I added in some song choices of my own, where they seemed to fit in—in part because it’s fun to think ahead to the HBO series (currently expected to debut in late 2013 or early 2014) and what the show’s soundtrack might be like—I, for one, already have my heart set on a theme song….

The songs below range from classical music to classic rock, pop songs to power ballads, show tunes to traditional folk melodies, and each song plays a part in the larger narrative—I’m still surprised by how much the musical references can inform and illuminate one’s reading of the text, once you start paying attention. I’ve covered each song in relative depth, chapter by chapter, but without further ado, here’s the complete American Gods Mega-Mix, for your listening enjoyment!

Please note that all page numbers correspond to American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text); any songs without page numbers are my own additions. And of course there are spoilers for the novel, below.

Chapters 1 & 2

Nottamun Town,” (Page 23): Thanks to one of our commenters, CHip137, who caught this rather sneaky reference: Gaiman borrows the name of this surreal and haunting folk song as the location for Jack’s Crocodile Bar. The song’s lyrics mirror Shadow’s confusion as his world is suddenly, but irrevocably, turned upside down….

Walkin’ After Midnight,” Patsy Cline (Pages 24, 32): Patsy Cline’s classic tune of lost love and longing plays twice at Jack’s, possibly foreshadowing the return of Laura, who will soon pay a late night visit to her grieving husband.

Iko Iko,” The Dixie Cups (Pages 29-30): A Mardi Gras standard, the lyrics about a confrontation between two New Orleans “tribes” might foreshadow the war that Wednesday is setting into motion; the allusion to Mardi Gras and Lent, just as Shadow and Wednesday seal their pact with meat and mead, also seems significant.

Who Loves the Sun,” The Velvet Underground (Page 36): Mad Sweeney plays this song on the jukebox at Jack’s; later that night, he accidentally gives Shadow the sun-coin, which brings Laura back to life, throwing Wednesday’s carefully laid plans out of whack.

The Fool on the Hill,” The Beatles (Page 41): The first of several references to The Beatles in American Gods, Shadow hears the song in a gas station bathroom on his way to Laura’s funeral; could be a reference to Wednesday, who plays the fool to con people, or possibly to Shadow himself—the big, quiet guy who’s much smarter than he looks at first glance? (Update: the original Beatles version/footage is no longer on YouTube, although you may be able to see it here.)

“Shadow and Jimmy,” Was (Not Was); (cowritten by Elvis Costello & David Was):

According to Neil Gaiman, this song (called “a chilly tale of two strange fish” by Elvis Costello) furnished him with a name for the novel’s protagonist, Shadow Moon.

Chapters 3 & 4

Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley and “Immigrant Song,” Led Zeppelin: No songs are specifically referenced in Chapter 3, but given Shadow’s dark night of the soul at the Motel America (before and after being visited by his dead wife), and the violent Viking interlude at chapter’s end, it seemed like an ideal time to slip some Elvis and Led Zeppelin into the mix.

Midnight Special,” Traditional song, (Page 65): The chorus of this folk song, thought to have originated with prisoners in the American South, starts off the fourth chapter, in which the midnight sister, Zorya Polunochnaya, plucks the moon from the sky and gives it to Shadow for protection.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Bob Dylan, (Page 67):

In keeping with all the references to “the coming storm” in the novel, Dylan’s vision of horrors (bloody branches, bleeding hammers, wolves, etc.) is one that grim Odin himself would have to appreciate, as he and Shadow drive to meet Czernobog in Chicago. (If you like your apocalypses with more of a glam rock edge, though, be sure to check out Bryan Ferry’s cover of the song, which I love beyond all reason…)

Night On Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky/Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov: While the Disney version of the Slavonic “black god” has more to do with Satanic imagery than the original mythology suggests, the “Chernabog” of Fantasia is still pretty impressive, even if the chain-smoking, hammer-toting Czernobog we meet in the novel might not see the resemblance.

I Have the Moon,” The Magnetic Fields: A fitting song for Shadow and Laura, in their current predicament: 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.

Chapters 5 & 6

“Sweet Home Chicago,” performed by The Blues Brothers:

Okay: we’ve got two con men, one recently released from prison, tooling around Illinois on a mission from god? The first ten pages of this chapter, in which Shadow and Wednesday suavely commit a felony, might as well be The Blues Brothers with bank robbery in place of musical numbers and Czernobog instead of Cab Calloway. Or maybe not, but it’s a great song, regardless!

Boléro, Maurice Ravel, (Page 107): Produced by a player piano at The House on the Rock, Ravel’s Boléro is the first of several classical pieces of music wheezed out by a variety of mechanical devices during Shadow and Wednesday’s visit, lending an air of gravity to its kitschy collection of oddities.

Danse macabre, Camille Saint-Saëns, (Pages 109-110): Based on an old French superstition, Danse macabre was originally paired with a poem relating the antics of Death as he summons the dead from their graves, bidding them to dance as he fiddles until dawn. Gaiman later worked the legend into The Graveyard Book, and this version by Béla Fleck was recorded for the audiobook.

Octopus’s Garden,” The Beatles, (Page 111): Another great song by the Beatles; given the multiple references to the band in this novel, I’d argue that they’re treated like deities belonging to a kind of pop culture pantheon along with Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and other iconic figures. This video certainly helps the argument, capturing the kind of hysterical, orgiastic worship the Fab Four inspired in fans at the height of Beatlemania.

The Blue Danube, Johann Strauss II, (Page 115): Played as The World’s Largest Carousel revolves majestically, like a prayer wheel, transporting Shadow and the gods behind the scenes for Wednesday’s summit.

The Emperor Waltz, Johann Strauss II, (Page 125): Written to commemorate a toast of friendship between Austrian emperor Franz Josef and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Emperor Waltz celebrates friendship and political accord between world leaders, making it an interesting (or possibly ironic) choice as Wednesday plays the politician, sweet-talking the old gods into declaring war.

(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Öyster Cult: A bonus track in honor of Laura Moon, newly minted (and highly effective) undead killing machine; her drive to protect Shadow is as touching as it is terrifying as she makes short work of the men who’ve abducted and interrogated him.

Chapters 7 through 11

“TV Eye,” The Stooges:

What better song to capture the utter creepiness of the scene in which Lucy Ricardo propositions Shadow from a motel room television? 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 channeling Howling Wolf.

Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” David Bowie: I imagine that Bast would appreciate the slinky intensity of this Bowie/Giorgio Moroder collaboration, the title song for the movie Cat People (1982).

Sally MacLennane,” The Pogues: We could easily make a separate mix tape of songs to accompany Mad Sweeney’s wake. This was my first choice, but there were some excellent suggestions: commenter Sittemio suggested “The Body of an American,” an equally magnificent Pogues song; another commenter, Crumley, mentioned the Dropkick Murphys’ “Your Spirit’s Alive” along with the Flogging Molly songs “Us of Lesser Gods”and “Speed of Darkness,” and hummingrose nominated “The Night Pat Murphy Died” by The Great Big Sea —all of which seem like wonderful additions to any proper Jameson-fueled leprechaun wake.

Little Drummer Boy,” Performed by Grace Jones (Page 208): This holiday classic provides the festive soundtrack to Shadow and Wednesday’s Christmas lunch (featuring Wednesday’s favorite two-man con games and a casual waitress seduction on the side).

“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, from Shadow and Hinzelmann to the friendly townspeople who turn a blind eye to the dark secret at the heart of their community.

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. Throughout the novel, when Shadow’s faced with danger or the unknown, he seems to habitually think back to memories of his mother for comfort; through his memories, she becomes a rather strong presence in her own right.

Help!” The Beatles (Page 234): We’ve had a McCartney song and a Ringo song, but when faced with mortal peril, Shadow finds himself channeling this John Lennon tune, appropriately enough. If The Beatles are pop culture deities, does humming along to “Help!” count as a prayer? Luckily for poor, freezing Shadow, it seems to work like one….

One Last Hope,” from Disney’s Hercules, performed by Danny DeVito (Page 247): 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 may just be an very sly bit of cleverness on Gaiman’s part…

“Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley:

Given Shadow and Wednesday’s side trip to Sin City, 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, albeit in the campiest possible way….

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.” It’s an interesting choice in a place where almost everything is meant to represent something else—a castle, a pyramid, Paris, New York, Real Elvis—perhaps the song is included as a comment on trying to replace something real with something not-quite-real, a concept which might apply to any number of characters and situations in the book (Shadow, Wednesday, Laura, Lakeside, and so on).

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” Scott McKenzie, (Page 269): When Wednesday, annoyed with Shadow for stirring up trouble (albeit in his dreams), announces that they’re heading to San Francisco, he snaps, “The flowers in your hair are optional” before hanging up. You’ve gotta love a sarcastic reference to the ultimate flower-powered hippie anthem coming from the guy who lives for battle, gore, and blood sacrifice.

Marie Laveau,” Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show/“Marie Laveau,” Oscar “Papa” Celestin: Two different songs based in the legends surrounding famed Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, who appears as the Widow Paris in the interlude at the end of Chapter 11.

“Litanie des Saints,” Dr. John:

A song which celebrates the Voodoo tradition of New Orleans and pays 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. Most of the gods referenced here would have been familiar to Wututu/Mama Zouzou, though perhaps in different incarnations.

Chapters 12 & 13

Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian),” Paul Revere & the Raiders: Technically speaking, Shadow and Wednesday meet up with Whiskey Jack and Apple Johnny on Lakota land, not Cherokee; then again, Samantha Black Crow and Margie Olsen are both half Cherokee—all things considered, this song seemed like a good fit in light of the visit at the reservation and Shadow’s conversation with Whiskey Jack a bit further on in the book.

The Lord’s Been Good to Me,” from Disney’s Johnny Appleseed: This version of John Chapman’s life is pretty much what you’d expect from a 1948 Disney cartoon—he’s best friends with a cartoon skunk, he doesn’t have a dead wife whose passing causes him to go crazy, there are some catchy tunes, and at the end a folksy angel collects him to go plant apple trees in heaven.

Dark Am I Yet Lovely,” Sinead O’Connor/“Material Girl,” Madonna (referenced in the Interlude, pages 328-334): Bilquis’s fervent recitation of the Biblical Song of Songs (interpreted here by Sinead O’Connor) overlaps with The Technical Boy’s snide, sadistic parody of “Material Girl” in this chapter, playing off of one another in interesting ways. The contrast between the two brings the old god’s authenticity and wisdom and the new god’s soulless, empty rhetoric into stark relief.

“Old Friends,” written by Stephen Sondheim (Page 339):

Chapter 13 opens with a quote from “Old Friends,” one of the signature songs from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. While it might seem like a positive, upbeat song, it’s actually rather sad in the context of the show, as the old friends in question do their best to console one another and pretend that things are fine, even as their relationships falter and implode. In the book, Shadow undergoes a traumatic series of events, building up and getting worse as the chapter moves forward, and it’s full of characters who could be defined as “old friends” of either Shadow or “Mike Ainsel,” making the opening quote seem grimly perfect by chapter’s end.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” Gary Portnoy: The theme song to Cheers, which Shadow is watching when the opposition break in with a live feed of Wednesday’s assassination. Ironically, his safety depended on living in a town where nobody knew his real name; walking into a bar and hearing a familiar voice yell “Shadow” was the beginning of the end of his stay in Lakeside.

Cabaret,” Liza Minnelli (from Cabaret): Only tangentially referenced via a bumper sticker that Shadow remembers fondly (reading “Life is a Cabernet”), but it’s an interesting connection. “Cabaret” is a song about seizing life by the horns sung by a character who can only function when she’s playing a part. As characters, Shadow and Sally Bowles don’t have much in common, but in different ways, they’re both avoiding life, or at least failing to be active participants in reality. But at least for Shadow, that’s all about to change.

Chapters 14, 15, and 16

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. And of course, 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 just makes me so happy, from the minute Czernobog sees their new ride 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.”

“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Traditional song, performed by Dave Van Ronk, (Page 408):

A verse from this 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. Originally, I posted The Grateful Dead’s more mellow take on the song, “I’ve Been All Around This World,” so thanks very much to commenter Hal_Incandenza, who provided me with a link to the Dave Van Ronk version, which is a much better fit.

Death is Not the End,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Nick Cave’s brilliant reworking of a Bob Dylan song; 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.

Chapters 17 & 18

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 an excellent fit. 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 particularly apt.

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.” And yet the song itself gives us an idea of what poetry gives us, in place of fact, and how it can turn a young outlaw into a legend (or even a culture hero).

Thunderbird,” Quiet Riot: Sure, the title might be a bit on-the-nose, but in an awesome power ballad-y way, the song encapsulates 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 he’s 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.

“City of Dreams,” Talking Heads:

This song fits so well thematically with the novel as a whole that it could go anywhere in the mix, but I included once we’d reached Whiskey Jack’s explanation of how America works on a spiritual level (avocados and wild rice and all). The lyrics should certainly resonate with fans of Whiskey Jack, the buffalo man, and American Gods as a whole.

Chapters 19, 20, and Postscript

What’s New Pussycat,” Tom Jones (Page 487): Mr. Nancy’s first karaoke selection; I’m sure watching Nancy belting out the lyrics and charming the crowd would be a joy to behold (and given Anansi’s earlier story about teasing Tiger, the song selection could be a winking reference to the old trickster god’s favorite adversary).

The Way You Look Tonight,” performed by Fred Astaire (Page 487): Nancy’s “moving, tuneful” rendition of the Jerome Kern classic gets his audience cheering and clapping. The fact that he chooses this particular song to help get his mojo flowing again—a song that’s all about making other people feel good—just ratchets up his already considerable appeal, in my book.

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” The Animals (Page 488)

Allowing himself to be pushed up onstage and to perform is a big step for Shadow, so it’s fitting that the karaoke track he chooses to sing is basically a song about being alive: occasionally getting angry, being joyful, feeling worried and regretful sometimes, but trying to be a good person. It’s about dealing with the ups and downs of life, and reacting to the different emotions involved—not being stoic, keeping your head down, and staying quiet, as he did for so long. For Shadow, it’s a song of triumph, of no longer being “a big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world,” and embracing the business of living. (For good measure, you should also check out Nina Simone’s stellar live interpretation of the song here…)

Closer To Fine,” Indigo Girls: Samantha Black Crow’s fondness for the Indigo Girls is made clear from her closing time routine at the coffee shop, as she puts on a CD an sings and dances along to the music. Since there’s no mention of a specific song or album, I’m going to go with “Closer to Fine,” one of the duo’s best-known songs—given the lyrics about not taking life too seriously and not tying yourself down to one set of answers, dogma, or belief, I think Sam would find it appropriate. And maybe even dance-worthy.

American Tune,” Paul Simon: In many ways, “American Tune” provides an echo of Shadow’s mood following the climactic events of the final chapters—tired, confused, having been through so much, but ultimately all right, as he takes a break from his homeland (telling himself that there’s nothing to go back for, but knowing at the same time that it’s not true). Despite the notes of sadness and uncertainty, the song’s focus on carrying on, in spite of trauma and loss, gives the sense that hope remains, after all.

“Beyond Belief,” Elvis Costello & the Attractions

Last, but not least: if I had to pick a single, all-encompassing theme song for American Gods, “Beyond Belief” would be it. Without being too on-the-nose, Costello’s idiosyncratic lyrics give a sense of intrigue and secrets, conflict, maybe even a femme fatale in the mix, and the line “But I know there’s not a hope in Hades” offers a convenient mythological link. Plus, I can never hear the lyric “You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard” without thinking of Shadow’s dream about the “Bone Orchard,” a phrase Low Key/Loki was fond of using. The song even mentions an “Alice” (through a two-way looking glass), which puts me in mind of “The Monarch of the Glen.” Any echoes between the song and the world of the novel are completely coincidental, of course, and yet the idea of being “beyond belief” neatly encapsulates the events of American Gods, for me—everything that happens is beyond belief, and yet the trick with both gods, myths, culture heroes and good fiction is that they make us believe in spite of ourselves.

Bridget McGovern is the managing editor of She no longer has the strength to fight the earworms; it’s like Dune in her head right now. Well, Dune with less sand and more guys named Elvis.


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