The Infinite Jukebox: Arlo Guthrie’s ‘City of New Orleans’

There’s an entire genre in America for train songs. In my youth now long gone, when all we had on the Light Programme on Sunday lunch, before the much-missed comedy hour at 2.00pm, was Two-Way Family Favourites, I was impressionably attracted to the song ‘Canadian Pacific’, but that’s about as far as I went until I first heard Arlo Guthrie’s version of Steve Goodman’s ‘City of New Orleans’.
Given that I heard of Arlo Guthrie long before I heard anything by him, and furthermore that I don’t think I’ve heard anything else he’s sung, I can quickly calculate that I did not hear this song until a long time after Guthrie recorded it in 1972. There’s a charming tale of composer Steve Goodman seeing Guthrie in a bar and asking if he could play him a song, and Guthrie replying that if Goodman bought him a beer, he’d listen for as long as it took to drink it. Guthrie ended up asking to record it, and the song was his only US Top 20 hit.
When and under what circumstances I did hear it are lost, and also whether I was immediately impressed. Certainly the song, and Guthrie’s laid-back and gently rambling treatment have grown upon me. I’m even wondering if I heard the song before this version, perhaps from one of the many folk-singers we saw at the Sunday night Folk Club at the Deanwater Hotel, back in the mid-Seventies.
The song is a gentle gem. It’s an impressionistic story about travelling on a train pulled by the locomotive City of New Orleans, travelling from Chicago to its home city, inspired by just such a journey taken by Goodman, to visit his family.
It isn’t really a travelogue. Goodman identifies leaving Illinois Central, in Monday morning rain, pulling out at Kankakee, changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee, but that’s it. The geography is incidental. Once on the train, Goodman, Guthrie and all the other passengers enter into an enclosed world, a bubble universe that they cannot leave until their journey is done, and it is the trappings of that world that catch Goodman’s eyes.
At first it’s what’s outside, passed indifferently, houses, farms and fields, trains that have no names, freight yards full of old black men and and graveyards of the rusted automobiles, all emphasising the feeling that life is inside and what is outside is a wasteland through which there is nothing to do but pass.
And with that, Goodman’s attention moves inside, to the people who are travelling this route and what they do to pass the time, playing cards, passing a bottle that’s no doubt inside a brown paper bag and clutched at the neck, the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers riding their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel, mothers with their babes asleep, lulled by the rhythm, relaxing into this world of isolation and transport, where the journey is all.
I haven’t travelled on the railway anywhere except in England, and that’s not big enough for any journey long enough to be a thing apart, but the song connects me to those almost mystical journeys across a country that’s a continent. And Goodman’s chorus spells it out for us, taking on the persona of the train itself. 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.
And so into the night, nighttime on the City of New Orleans, halfway home, we’ll be there by morning. And the poignant thought of travelling through the Mississippi delta, rolling down to the sea. But as night and sleep encroaches the journey takes on a different aspect, all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream, and everything dissolves into something not quite real. This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.
I have heard other versions of this song. My pal Garth directed my attention to the live version by Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow, which was alright, but that drove me back to what I will always see as the original: my original. I don’t know how Steve Goodman sang it, but I am content with Guthrie, relaxed, unhurried, borne up on a bubbling piano track, knowing that time lies ahead of him on the journey, and content to take that time: to be here and not going anywhere. He may not have written it, but to my ears he understands it best, and if I can’t take that journey for myself, I’ll follow in his tracks any day.


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