Hello there! In this post we take on the great folk-rock song City of New Orleans. We review the original version by folksinger Steve Goodman, and contrast this with covers by Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson.
Steve Goodman and City of New Orleans:
Steve Goodman was just twenty when he got the death sentence.
He discovered that his chronic fatigue was in fact a symptom of leukemia. From that point on Goodman experienced temporary periods of remission, but never felt that he had shaken the disease, and he eventually died from leukemia in 1984 at age 36.
From the time of his initial diagnosis, Goodman was determined to make the most of his limited days. He worked as a folksinger primarily at bars and clubs in his native Chicago, and throughout his performing career he remained active with Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.
Goodman’s wife Nancy Pruter described his attitude to life in liner notes for his posthumous album No Big Surprise,
Basically, Steve was exactly who he appeared to be: an ambitious, well-adjusted man from a loving, middle-class Jewish home in the Chicago suburbs, whose life and talent were directed by the physical pain and time constraints of a fatal disease which he kept at bay, at times, seemingly by willpower alone . . . Steve wanted to live as normal a life as possible, only he had to live it as fast as he could . . . He extracted meaning from the mundane.
In 1984 Steve Goodman entered the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle for treatment of his leukemia, and he eventually died there. In typical Goodman fashion, he gave himself the nickname “Cool Hand Leuk” during his final stay there.
Aside from his blockbuster hit City of New Orleans, Steve Goodman is probably best known as a diehard Chicago Cubs baseball fan. He attended games, met with players and was truly obsessed with the team and its century of failure to win the World Series. In fact, after his death his ashes were spread around the Cubs’ stadium, Wrigley Field.
He wrote several songs about the Cubs, notably A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request, a tongue-in-cheek list of requests ostensibly given by a dying Cubbies supporter. When the Cubs general manager complained that the song was too depressing, Goodman wrote the more upbeat Go Cubs, Go. That song is now played after every Chicago Cubs home win.
The Cubs’ record of futility neatly coincided with Goodman’s lifetime.
Four days after Goodman’s death, the Chicago Cubs clinched the Eastern Division title in the National League for the first time ever, earning them their first post-season appearance since 1945, three years before Goodman’s birth. Eight days later, on October 2, the Cubs played their first post-season game since the 1945 World Series. Goodman had been asked to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before it; Jimmy Buffett filled in, and dedicated the song to Goodman.
In 1972, Goodman was accompanying Senator Edmund Muskie on his eventually unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Goodman and his wife took an Illinois Central train from Chicago to Mattoon, IL. This inspired him to write the song City of New Orleans. With a terrific catchy melody and lyrics that combined vivid imagery with touching nostalgia, the song became a favorite tune for Goodman and arguably his most popular performing song.
Although a minor hit for Goodman, the song has since become a staple in American folk song. It has been covered by dozens of artists. Here is a live performance of Steve Goodman singing City of New Orleans for Old Grey Whistle Test, a BBC2 televised live music show, in 1972.
No wonder this is such a popular song, as it resonates with both folk and country enthusiasts. Apparently Goodman wrote it when he heard that the Illinois Central railroad line was planning to phase out their Chicago to New Orleans line. The chorus expresses beautifully the touching story of the about-to-be-cancelled train, and reminds us that the railroads were a crucial part of the technological revolution that converted our nation into an economic powerhouse in the 19th century.
Good morning America how are you?
Say 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.
By the way, the ABC TV morning show Good Morning America takes its name after the chorus from this song, which goes on to paint a vivid word portrait of this particular train journey.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
And 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.
The song ends with the bad tidings for the doomed route and for railroads in general. If you look at maps of rail lines in the U.S. from the early 1900s to the present, initially you see a busy map criss-crossed with long-distance passenger routes that disappear over time right before your eyes. This is particularly poignant since my wife and I are big fans of train travel, and it is heartbreaking to watch Amtrak try desperately to hang onto its last few long-distance routes.
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.
Damn, what a great song! As soon as I hear it, I find myself humming it for days afterwards.
Arlo Guthrie and City of New Orleans:
Arlo Guthrie is an American folksinger. It is not surprising that he would be involved in the folk-protest movement as he is the son of Woody Guthrie, the most famous American folksinger and political activist of the early 20th century. Guthrie has also appeared as an actor in various movies and TV shows.
Arlo Guthrie’s first hit was the nearly 20-minute long talking-blues song Alice’s Restaurant Massacree. The 1967 song told the story of an apparently true event in Guthrie’s life. The restaurant in question was run by Alice Brock, and features prominently in the chorus to the song.
In the song, Guthrie is called up for a draft examination, and rejected as unfit for military service as a result of a criminal record consisting in its entirety of a single arrest, court appearance, fine, and clean-up order for littering and creating a public nuisance on Thanksgiving Day in 1965, when Arlo was 18 years old. Alice and her restaurant make up the recurrent refrain, but barely figure in the story.
The song became a cult classic on counter-culture radio stations, and inspired a 1969 movie of the same name that was written and directed by Arthur Penn. Even today the song is frequently played by radio stations on Thanksgiving Day. Since the song deals with Arlo’s experiences with his draft board, Alice’s Restaurant was considered an anti-Vietnam war song. However it should more properly be considered an anti-establishment song, since it is more a critique of Guthrie’s experience with bureaucrats than a protest against the war.
Arlo Guthrie was also a headliner at Woodstock in 1969. He performed the song Coming Into Los Angeles that describes a man ‘bringin’ in a couple of keys’ (kilos of drugs) into LA airport, with the request ‘don’t touch my bags if you please, Mr. Customs Man.’ Following that song, Arlo gave a speech to the assembled crowd that was immortalized in the Woodstock film and album. “I don’t know how many of you can dig how many people there are, man. Like I was rappin’ to the fuzz, right. Can you dig it? Man, there’s supposed to be a million and a half people here by tonight, man. Can you dig that? The New York State thruway’s closed, man! Yeah, it’s far out, man. Lotta freaks.”
At the time, Guthrie’s politics were decidedly leftist. He frequently performed with the legendary activist and folksinger Pete Seeger, and
his expressed positions were consistently anti-war, anti-Nixon, pro-drugs and in favor of making nuclear power illegal. However, he apparently regarded himself as more an individualist than the major youth culture spokesperson he had been regarded as by the media
Arlo was a prominent supporter of George McGovern during the 1972 presidential election, and he performed at rallies and functions for that candidate. However, more recently his political stance appears to have shifted. He is now a registered Republican, supported Ron Paul for the 2008 GOP nomination for president, and considers himself a libertarian.
In 1991 he opened the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, MA in Alice Brock’s home (of Alice’s Restaurant fame). The center provides free lunches, help and counseling for people with HIV/AIDS, and support for research and treatment for Huntington’s Disease, the disease that killed his father.
In 1972, Steve Goodman met Arlo Guthrie in a bar in Chicago. Goodman introduced himself and asked if he could play Arlo a song. Guthrie was skeptical – ‘oh hell, a stranger comes up and asks to play me a song!’ So Guthrie made a deal — Goodman would buy him a beer, and Arlo would listen to the song until he finished the beer.
To his great surprise, Guthrie was so taken with City of New Orleans that he wanted to record it himself. Upon getting Goodman’s permission, Arlo recorded it and released it in 1972. The song reached the top 20 in the Billboard pop charts, and City of New Orleans is now considered Arlo Guthrie’s biggest hit. The song is now more closely identified with him than it is with Steve Goodman.
Here is a live performance by Arlo Guthrie on Soundstage, in 1974. This is just Arlo accompanying himself on piano (at which he is quite competent), together with a bass player.
And here is the Arlo Guthrie recording of City of New Orleans.
This is a memorable performance of a great song. A tinkling piano accompanies Guthrie’s vocals, together with a bass that plods along keeping the beat, and the record also features a group of backup singers who chime in on the chorus. Enjoy!
Willie Nelson and City of New Orleans:
Willie Nelson is one of the greatest country singer-songwriters of all time. He was born in Texas in 1933 and raised by his grandparents. Willie joined his first band at age 10, and continued to be active in music throughout a series of different jobs in his youth. Below is a photo of the young Willie Nelson in high school.
In 1958 Willie worked as a DJ and musician in Houston. At that time he wrote a number of great country songs, and in 1960 he moved to Nashville where he signed with RCA Victor Records and joined the Grand Ole Opry. Several of his songs were blockbuster hits for other artists – for example, Crazy became the biggest jukebox hit of all time for Patsy Cline, while Pretty Paper became a country hit for Roy Orbison.
Willie’s own singing career languished in Nashville, so in 1972 he decided to retire to Austin, TX. There he became a leader in the ‘outlaw country’ movement. Outlaw country consisted of musicians such as Waylon Jennings, who like Willie felt that Nashville’s rigid musical and cultural conformity was like a strait-jacket. Cities like Austin, TX and Muscle Shoals, AL became centers of the outlaw country scene.
Freed from the strictures of the Nashville Sound, Willie began performing again. Then – Shazam! Willie’s records began to click. Starting with the 1973 Atlantic album Shotgun Willie and the 1975 Columbia release Red Headed Stranger, Willie Nelson’s career was jump-started and he has never looked back. In the past 40 years Willie has produced a slew of best-selling albums, collaborated with artists like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, and garnered a boatload of awards and honors. Willie was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
In the mid-1980s, Willie and Waylon teamed up with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson to form the outlaw country supergroup The Highwaymen. Again, they were phenomenally successful. Willie has also appeared in a number of movies, most notably Honeysuckle Rose and Red Headed Stranger, and he was a guiding force behind the long-running PBS TV series Austin City Limits.
Willie has also been a major player in a number of charity and activist organizations. With Neil Young and John Mellencamp, he was a founder of the Farm Aid concerts that have raised money in support of family farms since 1985. At left is a photo of Willie at Farm Aid in 2009. Willie is also co-chair of the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) national board.
Activism in NORML is not just a philosophical issue with Nelson: he claims that smoking pot has almost certainly prevented him from becoming an alcoholic; and marijuana allegedly helped him kick a several-pack-a-day cigarette habit that had produced some dangerous health problems. Nelson is also an entrepreneur in the bio-diesel business.
For years now, Willie and Family have toured almost constantly, driving around in a custom bio-diesel-powered bus Honeysuckle Rose; he is currently on version #5 of that bus. Now that he is approaching 82, he is looking rather frail. But Willie is by now a living national treasure, and both his voice and music are extremely special.
Willie is also an excellent guitarist. He gets a unique and wonderful sound from his beat-up Martin classical guitar “Trigger” (at left), which seems to be held together by duct tape and sealing wax.
Here is a live performance of City of New Orleans by Willie Nelson and the outlaw country supergroup The Highwaymen. What a treat to see Willie, Waylon, Johnny and Kris — they are outlaw country ‘royalty.’ Note that the crowd really gets into it during every chorus of Good morning, America, how are you? Geez, Willie has the perfect voice for country music!
Willie Nelson’s record of City of New Orleans reached #1 on the Billboard country music charts in 1984. For this record, Steve Goodman was posthumously awarded the Country Music Grammy in 1985.