Not long after the first steam locomotives graced the American scene in 1844, a love affair began between railroads and songwriters. The American folk tradition abounds with ballads about fast-flying vestibules, brave engineers and spectacular train wrecks. Something about trains captures and celebrates America—something so basic that it has been an integral part of our image around the world. From sooty locomotives to Jetsons-like Streamliners, trains bespeak movement, Manifest Destiny, a connection to the land, individualism, capitalism, beginnings, dreams, the work ethic and freedom itself.
So it’s no surprise that in the eclectic musical era of the second half of the 20th century, when American folk, rock, pop, country and jazz swirled around one another, often to glorious effect, a new train song emerged. Augmenting a genre that already included “The Orange Blossom Special”, “The Wabash Cannonball”, “John Henry”, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and so many others was a blockbuster called “City of New Orleans.”
If you’ve driven long-distance, you’ve likely heard the song on the radio. “City of New Orleans” is a classic crossover song. Non-commercial college stations play it as folk, soft-rock stations play it as folk rock, and “oldies” stations play it because people keep requesting it. The version they request, the one virtually always heard on the radio, is the one made famous by Arlo Guthrie.
And why not? Arlo is the son of the late Woody Guthrie, a veteran freight-train hopper and the greatest songwriter-impresario of American folk, and Arlo is a lesser legend in his own right. Having written the counterculture antiwar and pro-marijuana anthems “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Coming into Los Angeles”, he was a founding figure of the Woodstock Nation when he released “City of New Orleans” in the spring of 1972. It became a long-lasting hit, partly because of its sweet and catchy tune, but also because its wistful lyrics connected a declining railroad industry with a generation of young, seemingly forsaken “native sons.” The vast majority of those who know the song thus naturally assume that Arlo wrote it. But he didn’t.
The writer was Steve Goodman, then a middle-class college student born and bred in Chicago, the gritty, metropolitan hub of America’s breadbasket. After spending his high-school years in a burgeoning suburb, Goodman headed to the conservative, Greek-dominated University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He didn’t exactly fit in with the straight-laced in-crowd. He was Jewish and pudgy, barely reaching the un-masculine height of 5’2”. But Goodman’s gift of voice (practiced from synagogue singing), his remarkable facility with a guitar and his comfort and command in the presence of an audience gave him stature that defied his small frame.
A natural entertainer, Goodman came by his inspiration for “City of New Orleans” honestly. Like many other students, he chose the train over the tedious two-lane for traveling on holidays and weekends between Champaign-Urbana and Chicago. The all-coach City of New Orleans—inaugurated in 1951, three years after Goodman’s birth—was one of three Illinois Central passenger lines serving the length of the state and continuing south along the Mississippi through prairies, riverfront cities and towns to the jazzy home of Mardi Gras. In 1967, near the end of his two years at the U of I, Steve seized the train’s mystique. Skipping classes, he stayed aboard until it reached New Orleans.
Soon afterward, Goodman joined a high-school friend, Howard Primer, at a downstairs music club in Chicago’s Old Town. He boasted of his 1,700-mile journey, becoming most animated when talking of the return trip, during which he had drifted off to sleep. “When he woke up”, as Primer relates Goodman’s story, “it was like he was in a surreal world: The sound of the train, the rhythm of the train, the swaying of the train, looking out the windows at the misty morning on the delta country. And he was talking about ‘Good morning, America.’” The pair scribbled lyrics on a napkin, Goodman crafting a chorus that included the plaint, “Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.” It was Goodman’s first serious burst of songwriting, and he was giving the train a human voice. The idea was just a scrap, but it had stamina. When, some time later, Goodman added “Good morning, America, how are you?” to those lines, he had the core for an extraordinary chorus.
Three years later, Steve Goodman’s life had changed dramatically. He had dropped out of college to plunge full-bore into music, but his passion was fueled by a special urgency: In 1970, halfway through his 21st year, he was diagnosed with leukemia. In those days, that diagnosis fell as a death sentence: Goodman didn’t know how many months, let alone years, he had to live. Between lengthy trips to New York for grueling experimental treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, he burned an indelible impression in the Chicago folk scene and, after a whirlwind courtship with a nursing student and club waitress, became a married man. Amid the anxiety and anger brought on by his cancer, he exemplified a profound lesson: Life is to be lived, not someday, but right now.
Most of Goodman’s musical sets at the Earl of Old Town and other Chicago clubs then consisted of songs written by others. But that began to change on a chilly Monday morning in April 1970. Goodman and his wife Nancy left Chicago to visit her grandmother at the Illinois Veterans Home three hours south, near the town of Mattoon. They boarded the City of New Orleans, where Goodman later claimed he was visited by the muse:
Nancy was sleeping in the seat next to me. I just took out a sketchpad, and I looked out the window and wrote down everything I saw: junkyards, little towns that didn’t even have a sign to say what they were. Just out of Chicago, there was a bunch of old men standing around tin cans, warming themselves and waving. Nancy was still asleep after about an hour and a half, so I went down to the club car and ended up playing cards with a couple of old men.
On the trip, Goodman cobbled two verses to go with a chorus, ending the song with a prescient observation echoing his medical condition, that the train was cursed with “the disappearing railroad blues.” The choice of title was inevitable—as specific and mythic as any in American songwriting. Because he had personified the train, the song became “City of New Orleans.”
When Goodman brought the tune back to Chicago, fellow musician Richard Wedler prodded him to “do more of a Steinbeck” with the lyrics. So he added a middle verse revealing the ordinary elements of life aboard the train, such as old men passing a “paper bag that holds the bottle” and a mother rocking a baby to “the wheels grumbling ’neath the floor.” The word pictures were a crowning touch, cementing the song’s appeal.
Before long, “City of New Orleans” would embed itself in America’s consciousness. A year after the song’s completion, just as Congress took over the nation’s faltering railways and created Amtrak, Goodman was ushered into the rarefied world of recording contracts and national touring by the unlikely duo of Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka. Goodman’s first LP, with “City of New Orleans” as its showpiece, impressed critics and the music world, but the album failed to crack the charts. Neither did a mangled version of “City of New Orleans” recorded by the fast-rising John Denver. Then into Steve’s life walked Arlo Guthrie.
Chicago club owner Richard Harding exhorted Guthrie to listen to Goodman play “City of New Orleans”, a request that Guthrie fulfilled while making a simple demand of his own: a solitary beer. In this peculiar meeting, the match of song, author and interpreter became snugly symbiotic. As with Goodman, hanging over Guthrie was a cloud of death, an incurable nerve abnormality called Huntington’s chorea, which had felled his father and loomed as a genetic threat. Beer in hand, Guthrie listened to Goodman’s tune and was sold. For decades, Guthrie has quipped, “It was one of the finer beers of my life.”
Guthrie slowed the song and added a melodic hook to fortify its emotion, but the lyrics remained virtually the same. Without a promo push, Arlo’s version of “City of New Orleans” caught the fancy of radio stations in the South and spread via the grass roots. By the fall of 1972, it was a nationwide hit.
“City of New Orleans” turned out to be Arlo Guthrie’s only mainstream commercial success. That also sealed the song’s fate as Steve Goodman’s calling card. Without it, Goodman once wisecracked, his music career might have been relegated to the bathroom shower. The bookings he secured due to the song let him stay in the music business even during stints when he lacked a major-label recording contract. The tune also let him care for his family, which soon included three daughters, and tend to his uncertain health.
Emblematic of Goodman’s and Guthrie’s tie to the tune and to each other, an out-of-town club where Steve was playing in the mid-1970s once received a phone call from a would-be concertgoer asking who was on the bill that night.
“Steve Goodman”, the club staffer answered.
“Yeah”, said the caller, “what’d he do?”
“Well, he’s the fellow who wrote that song, ‘City of New Orleans.’ ”
“Oh yeah, him: Woody Goodman’s kid.”
Having escaped his father’s disease, Guthrie has expressed gratitude this year, as he celebrates his 60th birthday, for his success with “City of New Orleans” and his connection with Goodman. “We were friends on a deeper level than just a passing, chance meeting”, he says. “I felt we had a real sort of kinship, and I know he felt the same way.”
Miraculously, Goodman survived his leukemia for many years. Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, he kept the disease secret as he forged on with his songwriting, recording and performing. He impishly charmed and galvanized audiences, including crowds of 10,000-plus while opening more than 200 times for comic sensation Steve Martin. Goodman’s shows drew liberally from his own hilarious, touching and provocative material, as well as from Tin Pan Alley standards and the work of contemporaries such as John Prine and Shel Silverstein. Many who saw Goodman perform regard him today as the most personable and captivating entertainer they have ever encountered. Yet because his leukemia was not public, few grasped the poignancy of his persistent lyrical theme, mortality.
In retrospect, the theme is inescapable. “The I Don’t Know Where I’m Goin’ but I’m Goin’ Nowhere in a Hurry Blues” is an obvious hint. In “Somebody Else’s Troubles”, Goodman depicted an eager undertaker. An extended traveling-salesman joke bore a mordant punch line and title: “Death of a Salesman.” The sly advice of “Between the Lines” referenced a death certificate. “The Twentieth Century Is Almost Over” noted the impatient toe tapping of Old Father Time and presaged the end of an era. “Video Tape” danced around the Grim Reaper. “My Old Man” achingly recounted his father’s early demise. And the title of “The One That Got Away” said it all.
The most blatant of Goodman’s musical obituaries emerged in 1981, the year of big-league baseball’s first mid-season strike. “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” (based on the musical succession of “The Unfortunate Rake”, “St. James Infirmary”, “Streets of Laredo” and the “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”) forecast the funeral plans of a terminal aficionado of Chicago’s perennially hapless North Side team. Its lyrics reflected Goodman’s lifelong devotion to the national pastime and tread a balanced path of sarcastic affection for a team then bent on being “the doormat of the National League.”
When his leukemia relapsed and he missed a pair of key New York bookings in mid-1982, Goodman’s disease became public. He gamely answered reporters’ questions but tried to keep the focus on music. He issued albums on his own label and maintained a blistering road schedule. But in the words of his “Dying Cub Fan”, Goodman “knew his time was short.” Less than a year before his death, he penned his most direct tilt at mortality, “You Better Get It While You Can.” Ostensibly a tribute to African-American musician Carl Martin, the song’s point was unmistakable: “From the cradle to the crypt, it’s a mighty short trip. . . . If you wait too long, it’ll all be gone.”
By September 1984, Steve Goodman himself was gone, the victim at age 36 of a disease that might have killed him 15 years earlier. Devoted fans were shocked when they heard the news, many having to stop in their tracks—driving, cooking, nailing wallboard—to sit down and cry. The music world mourned with celebrity-studded tribute concerts. Some of Goodman’s cremated ashes, as he forecast in “Dying Cub Fan”, were strewn on Wrigley Field’s left-field wall (not beneath home plate, as urban legend has it). Goodman won his first Grammy posthumously on the shoulders of Willie Nelson’s version of “City of New Orleans”, which topped the country charts for an astounding three months.
The City of New Orleans itself remains alive today, as both a functioning train and as a great song. More than eighty artists, including some outside the United States, have recorded it, and it remains by far Goodman’s best-known work. No wonder, for it retains a genuine charm, particularly for baby boomers. Darcie Sanders, co-founder of Amazingrace, a cooperative in the Chicago suburb of Evanston that often hosted Goodman in concert, keenly observes that the song
goes beyond classic into something archetypal that hooks into people so deeply that they’re moved, and they join in. . . . It’s the best outsider anthem anyone has ever written for America. We were the native sons and daughters, but maybe America didn’t know us or recognize us. Who has not felt that their life is disappearing? It’s the questioning, the trying to get closer, and yet the train is speeding away, the sense of the lost moment. That’s how a whole generation felt about their relationship with America and themselves as Americans.
“City of New Orleans” still bursts from stereos, car radios and stages across America and beyond in this, the 35th anniversary year of its hit recording. Like other enduring classics, the song barrels along, fulfilling the implicit dream of its author—and of all Americans—to transcend the very bounds of mortality.