Good Morning America

The ‘City of New Orleans’ was written by Steve Goodman in 1970 and it is often referred to as the best train song ever written, because it is an insight to life in rural America from the vantage point of a train car.  The song is filled with nostalgia of an America that existed not too long ago, featuring rail travel and club cars, it becomes eerie as the song depicts a near-deserted train with more mail than passengers.  Steve had just gotten married and he was traveling with his new bride Nancy to meet her grandmother who was 90-something and living in a retirement home in Southern Illinois.  They rode the train on the Illinois Central Line called The City Of New Orleans.  As his wife Nancy slept, Steve jotted down notes on a sketch pad about the passing scenery and while playing cards in the club car.  After they returned home to Chicago, Goodman heard that the train was scheduled to be decommissioned due to lack of passengers, so he blended all of his notes into a song.  He was encouraged to use this song to save the train, and he released it on his first album in 1971.  In 1985, the belated Goodman won a posthumous Grammy award for Best Country Song as the writer of this song.  He had died a few months earlier of the leukemia which he was diagnosed with during his college years.  Steve wrote and sang memorable songs for well over a decade even though he was often sick.  He also was a huge fan of his hometown baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, and wrote the team’s unofficial victory song, “Go, Cubs, Go!”, which saw action on two different Billboard charts when the Cubs won the 2016 World Series.  The song ‘City of New Orleans’ was performed by numerous artists.

The Illinois Central’s passenger train City of New Orleans was the railroad’s secondary train between Chicago and The Big Easy that started running in 1947.  The New Orleans was marketed as a vacationing experience available to the everyday American.  It had the ability to cover the 921-mile journey in a single day including 22 stops, and blazing along at speeds up to 100 mph, completing the trip in 15 hours, 55 minutes.  In May 1971, Amtrak took over the City of New Orleans train and converted it to a nighttime route, and they renamed it the Panama Limited.  After the song ‘City of New Orleans’ became popular in the 1970s, Amtrak, hoping to atone for their mistake and wanting to capitalize on the song’s popularity, brought back the ‘City of New Orleans’ train name in 1981.  The song was recorded by Goodman on his eponymous debut album in 1971 on the small Buddah label, home to acts like the 1910 Fruitgum Company and Captain Beefheart.  Goodman had an honest, regular-Midwestern-guy singing style, but this song didn’t do well on the radio and he didn’t sell many records.  A year or so later, Arlo Guthrie cut ‘City of New Orleans’ and his version became a hit single, giving Goodman’s reputation as a writer and an artist a major boost.

Arlo is the son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie.  Gurhrie’s version of the song became a Top 20 hit in 1972 and this was Arlo’s only chart hit.  Arlo was an exception in the days where the tons of equipment from large bands ruled the air waves.  Arlo Guthrie is a musician who mastered his craft and he is best remembered for three songs and one is ‘City of New Orleans’.  Another notable song is also ‘Coming into Los Angeles’, one of the greatest songs of the 1960s related to the paranoia felt by travelers carrying illegal drugs, which Guthrie sang at the legendary Woodstock music festival, and which is featured prominently in both the Woodstock movie and multi-platinum soundtrack album.  He is also well known for his Thanksgiving day classic, ‘Alice’s Restaurant Massacree’ the comic-monologue-in-song about his adventures in littering and at his experience at the draft board gave him his initial fame and took up the first side of his debut LP, the million-selling Alice’s Restaurant.  Before ‘City of New Orleans’ Arlo Guthrie was known as a performer of novelty songs, but this song revealed Guthrie as an artist of great depth, insightful enough to take another writer’s song and improve on it.  In 1972, this song anchored his fifth album Hobo’s Lullaby, which was largely devoid of original compositions.  ‘City of New Orleans’ was released as a single, it peaked at number 18 in the Billboard Hot 100, number four in the magazine’s Easy Listening chart.

Guthrie changed his version in contrast to the Goodman song, transforming the guitar-based folk song that was stormed through, by slowing down the tempo and singing this song from behind a piano.  In Guthrie’s elegiac rendition, ‘City of New Orleans’ transcended nostalgia to the point where listeners found themselves on the train, imagining that they were one of the “fifteen restless riders” on a “southbound odyssey” to the past, pacing nervously from one car to another, kibitzing or sitting in on the penny a point card game in the club car.  Guthrie captured the suffering of nameless trains, auto graveyards, and the rumbling gentle beat of a disappearing way of life where the “steel rails still ain’t heard the news”.  At the end of each verse comes the haunting and ironic chorus, with the City of New Orleans brightly greeting the country and the new day knowing full well that it will be long gone when the “day is done”, five hundred miles from when he embarked on this journey “through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea”.

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ trains that have no names
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Good morning America how are you?
Don’t you know me I’m your native son
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Dealin’ cards games with the old men in the club car
Penny a point ain’t no one keepin’ score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor
And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steam
Mothers with their babes asleep
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

Good morning America how are you?
Said don’t you know me I’m your native son
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Half way home, we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea
But all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings his songs again
The passengers will please refrain
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues

Good night, America, how are you?
Said don’t you know me I’m your native son
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Written for FOWC with Fandango – Hardware, for Sheryl’s A New Daily Post Word Prompt – Belated, for Ragtag Community – Contrast, for Scotts Daily Prompt – Craft and for Word of the Day Challenge Prompt – Atone.

14 thoughts on “Good Morning America

  1. I learned a lot, as I usually do, from reading your post. I know the song, but I guess I never really listened, or paid much attention, to the lyrics because I would not have been able to say that it was written about a train.

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