Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Arlo Guthrie: City of New Orleans

SONG City of New Orleans

WRITTEN BY Steve Goodman


APPEARS ON Hobo's Lullaby (1972), The Best of Arlo Guthrie (2007)

NOTE Clay Eals, author of Steve Goodman: Facing the Music, is the source of the account of how Steve Goodman and Arlo Guthrie met.

Late one 1971 evening in a Chicago club, the club owner and a then unknown singer-songwriter named Steve Goodman approached Arlo Guthrie, who just finished performing. The owner asked Guthrie to listen to a song Goodman had written. A reluctant Guthrie agreed to listen for as long as it took him to drink a beer. And Goodman had to buy the beer.

The song that the owner had in mind was called "City of New Orleans," which was inspired by a ride Goodman and his wife had taken on the train of that name to visit her mother (a trip Goodman had also taken many times as a student at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana). Rife with nostalgia for a long ago America of rail travel and club cars, the song depicted a near-deserted train with more mail than passengers. As Guthrie listened to the song, his mood must have softened. Had he known that "City of New Orleans" would eclipse "Alice's Restaurant" as his signature song, he might have jumped for joy.

Guthrie transformed the guitar-based folk song that Goodman romped through by slowing the tempo and singing it from behind a piano. In Guthrie's elegiac rendition, "City" transcended nostalgia; listeners found themselves on the train, imagining themselves as 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.

Goodman seemed to know that his beloved Midwest was fading, and Guthrie captured perfectly the pathos of nameless trains, auto graveyards, and the rumbling gentle beat of a disappearing way of life that "still ain't heard the news." At the end of each verse comes the haunting and ironic chorus, with the City of New Orleans optimistically greeting the country and the new day knowing full well that it will be long gone when the "day is done," five hundred miles further on its inexorable journey "through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea."

"City of New Orleans" changed at least three lives. For Goodman, the royalties from Guthrie's #20 hit meant that he could quit his day job to become a full-time prolific songwriter. Highly respected by his peers, Goodman attracted a cult following and went on to write many more songs, including David Allan Coe's #8 country hit "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" (written with John Prine) and the Chicago favorite "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request." Steve Goodman died of leukemia in 1984 at the age of 36.

Before "City of New Orleans," Arlo Guthrie was known as a performer of novelty songs and as the son of America's greatest folk singer. "City" revealed Guthrie as an artist of great depth, insightful enough to take another writer's song and improve on it. It anchored his 1972 album Hobo's Lullaby, an electic mix of traditional and modern folk, country, blues, Hawaiiana, and ragtime. Guthrie looked back to the work of his father and his father's contemporaries while simultaneously reinterpreting modern songwriters like Goodman, Hoyt Axton, and Bob Dylan.

"City" informs Hobo's Lullaby throughout. Images of solitary travel abound: "I'll come back home to you," "On a long lonesome journey I'm going," "Take a trip with me to 1913," "I've been to wild Montana," and, from the title track which is also "City's" poignant companion piece, "let the town's drift slowly by" and "can't you hear the steel rails hummin'." "Lightning Bar Blues" and "Ukulele Lady" sound like songs a lonesome passenger might pick out on the guitar that travels everywhere with him. The title of "Mapleview (20%) Rag" evokes New Orleans itself, the home of ragtime. And the fragile community of conductors, porters, passengers, and engineers finds its expression in
Every day another man reaches out his hand
Every moment there's a shifting in the sand
It's my favorite Guthrie album, one I still listen to several times a year.

Which leads me to the third person whose life "City of New Orleans" changed: Me. I liked the song when I heard it on the radio and bought Hobo's Lullaby when it came out. I was 17 at the time, and it opened my ears to a new musical vocabulary. For the first time, I heard a country song ("Shackles & Chains") that I wanted to sing along with instead of ridicule, and my love of classic country began. I had never heard the blues played acoustically; eventually, this led to the discovery of Robert Johnson and his mystical world of hustlers, fast women, and uncompromising demons. Hobo's Lullaby forced me to recognize that there were songwriters other than the sanctified Dylan and Lennon-McCartney.

Growing up, my family moved many times until settling in South Texas in 1967. Every summer the seven of us piled into a station wagon made the trek from Texas to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts to visit relatives, a trip that made us international wanderers by the lights of South Texas. Until I listened to "City of New Orleans," it never occurred to me that one day I could travel by myself to wherever I wanted to go. The romance of that notion held me then, and still holds me today.

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.
I saw this tour in 1978. Arlo amassed five guitars for "Comin' into Los Angeles." Here, he sings an assured version of "City of New Orleans":

Steve Goodman, "City's" author, with Jethro Burns of Homer and Jethro on mandolin:

Wille Nelson and Sheryl Crow essay a rollicking country version that seems to have benefited from passing the paper bag that holds the bottle:

Arlo, once more:

P.S. If you watched the Coe video and thought the guitarist looked familiar, that's because he's Warren Haynes, the guitar hero who went on to revive the Allman Brothers and lead Gov't Mule.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Ahhhh! I've always loved that song, and I've always loved Arlo. It's interesting how a song written only in 1972 has become such a major piece of Americana. And yeah, I saw the '78 tour, too; I forget now, though, whether it was up at the Veteran's Memorial Theater in Providence or over at the Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford (I've seen him in both places through the years and I tend to get the occasions mixed up).

    Someday I'm gonna have to tell the story of how I met Arlo and we ended up autographing each other's shirts.

  3. I caught the '78 tour at the old Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, ground zero for the Austin music scene of the 60s and 70s.

    Goodman may have written penetrating lyrics, but it's Arlo's arrangement that has made the song what you rightly call a major piece of Americana. The piano, the tempo, and the choir give "City" its elegiac tone, and it's that tone that has given the song staying power.

  4. Many thanks to Clay Eals, author of Steve Goodman: Facing the Music for reading this entry and correcting a few factual errors in the first two paragraphs.

    In his email to me, Eals also offered these insights regarding subtle changes made by Guthrie to Goodman's original lyrics:

    "You may want to point out that the lyrics you post are from Arlo's version, not Steve's. Arlo sings "passing trains that have no name" and "rumblin'" and employs the rhyme of "steel and feel," whereas Goodman's version uses "passing towns that have no name," "grumblin'" and the rhyme of "steam and dream." No big deal, as Arlo preserved the spirit of the song. John Denver's changes to the lyrics, however, are another story -- and yes, that's in the book, too."

  5. I've always loved that song too, but never read the full lyrics before! My earliest knowledge of New Orleans was basically that it was a place where people rode by in parades and threw beads to children, plus the sense of this song about the train. thanks, susanna

  6. I'm still not really tired of that song. I've seen Arlo a gazillion times (approximately) in a lot of different places and that's the one song he just about always plays.

    Arlo and friends and family did a City of New Orleans tour a few years ago for the benefit of musicians in NOLA who'd been hurt by Katrina, riding on the City of New Orleans to the stops on the tour.

  7. What a great idea for a tour. Arlo has never given up the fight.

  8. What a great story. My mom turned me on to Steve Goodman when I was a teenager. I had no idea he died so young. I sent her this link. Nice job, K.

  9. my mom is a fan too..ill have this article printed for her to read...thanks

  10. Thanks so much to you both.

    Trrish, that's one cool mom you have there!

  11. gosh folks - wouldn't it be good to have a vid of the dearly departed author of this gem onhere as well?