Headphone Love: “The City of New Orleans”


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’ card 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 steel.
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?
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.
And 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 song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.

Good night, 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.

* * *

This song calls back to a very early time in my life, associated with hazy memories of my living room and Arlo Guthrie’s record on the turntable. That was back when our house still had carpet and I remember laying there in front of the stereo and hearing this song. Hearing it quite a lot, as my dad is a big Arlo fan. I don’t know if he listens to Arlo much anymore, but I seem to remember him always being on when I was kid. Of course memories are faulty as a rule so I could be making all of this up. Either way, this song has a special place in my heart, and it has never grown old to these ears. I love it as much today as I did back then.

A wonderful mix of train songs by my friend Lindsey had another version of this song by John Denver, a version I’d never heard. This version of the song, a live version of the song, starts with a quick story about the recording of the song, with  J-Denny mentioning how Arlo had basically stolen the song out from under him. “Really ticked me off,” John says, although I find it hard to believe anything really ticked him off. The song and the story kickstarted the idea for this post in my mind, because the song does have some history behind it that I bet many don’t know. Plus, it’s just a beautiful song and sounds terrific in just about anybody’s hands.

Let’s talk lyrics first. The song is fairly straightforward here; it’s a story song about travel on the City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans. The train is one of the old Illinois Central lines, running the “southbound odyssey” from Chicago, to Memphis, to Jackson MO, and finally to New Orleans. And it’s still active today, though operated by Amtrak, as all passenger rails are in the US. The song is a fairly sentimental look at the transition of the US from a rails country to a car country, and the transition from private rail companies to the single quasi-government one, Amtrak, which happened in 1970-71, the same time this song was written and recorded. Hence the line, “this train’s got the disappearing railroad blues,” a line I took for the longest time to be some sort of ghost-train reference.”The steel rails still ain’t heard the news.”

The lyrics are filled with lively characters, and the writer seems to be struck by a certain feeling that many people, especially writer types, feel when they ride long-distance trains, which is a sort of instant nostalgia. Every experince is heightened, every smell and touch and sight evocative of a past that is not quite passed yet, but not quite present anymore.

And there is that magnificent chorus. “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.” Honestly, this chorus ensures this song will be remembered as one of the finest in all of American music.

Pretty great for Arlo Guthrie, right? Maybe, but not entirely. You see, he didn’t write the song. Arlo did not write “The City of New Orleans.” The song was written by Steve Goodman, a Chicago singer/songwriter who went through most of his career as an unknown, what they’d call a “songwriter’s songwriter” – that is, a writer well-respected by other writers, but one who received little attention for his own work. He did finally receive a Grammy nod in 1985 as the songwriter behind Willie Nelson’s hit version of the song – but he had  died from leukemia months earlier. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break. If you can, do try to find some of Steve’s work, as he was an excellent singer and songwriter. And if you’ve ever been at Wrigley Field for a Cubs victory, you’ve heard Steve sing before; he wrote the unofficial Cubs anthem, “Go Cubs Go,” which they often play in the stadium.

As memorable as Arlo’s version is, there are other versions as well, many of them equal to, if not actually better than Arlo’s version. I’ve already mentioned two: John Denver’s and Willie Nelson’s, but there are more. There is of course Steve Goodman’s original, a stripped-down folksy romp, and versions by Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, and – my personal favorite – a duet version of the song with John Prine (a close friend of Goodman’s) and Randy Scruggs, featuring Scruggs’ awesome guitar work.

Musically the song and all its incarnations follow the same muse, each version incorporating a bright sound and a bouncy steam engine beat. All have a distinct country flavor, incorporating steel guitar, mandolins, and an abundance of pickin’ guitars. The Guthrie version has that wonderful piano and accordion combo, and the Scruggs/Prine version has some incredible pedal steel, not to mention great solos by Scruggs and Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds).

Well, I believe that’s enough of me talking about this song and all its wonderful cover versions. I bet you wanna listen to some of these! You can download a ZIP file here with all of the versions mentioned above.

John Keats, “Keen, fitful gusts are whisp’ring here and there”
Donald Hall, “The Ninth Inning”
  • I just noticed that of the major artists that recorded this song, three of them are now dead: Steve Goodman, John Denver, Johnny Cash. Somebody better go check up on Arlo and Willie and Judy.

  • Great article about one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite songwriters.

    RE the Denver story: Based on every account that I’ve heard and read about how Arlo Guthrie came to record “City of New Orleans,” John Denver was plain full of it in claiming Arlo “stole the song.” Kris Kristofferson basically locked Guthrie and Goodman in a room together in 1970, and that’s where Goodman pitched the song to Guthrie. (As Arlo tells the story, he promised to listen to anything Steve wanted to play if he’d buy him a beer first. Arlo’s conclusion: “best beer I ever had!”) Denver did not even CONSIDER recording the song until after Arlo’s version, and when he did things got ugly: he changed “freight yards full of old BLACK men” to “freight yards full of old GRAY men,” and changed the chorus’ opening salvo, “Good morning, America, how are you?” to “Good morning, America, I love you” — then took HALF SONGWRITER CREDIT for it!

    Goodman, who needed the money for his leukemia treatment and at the time believed the doctors who told him he had three years to live (they told him that in 1968), didn’t argue. However, I hope that somewhere in Heaven, Steve Goodman is kicking John Denver’s worthless behind for what he did to “City of New Orleans.”

    BTW, I highly recommend Eals’ biography of Goodman. (There’s a review of it in my blog.)

  • Thanks for posting this, I found it very informational. I was born in Memphis and still have many fond memories of the area. I am working on a trip back there this spring. Has Memphis changed much from the early 80’s? I am really looking forward to seeing Graceland again.

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