‘The Conductor Sings His Song Again . . .’

Originally posted September 23, 2008

A while back, I wrote about my love for trains and offered a Baker’s Dozen of Trains, thirteen songs with the word “train” in the title. One of the flaws of searching for songs by specific words is that good songs – about trains, in that case – may have titles that don’t show up in the search.

So it was with the song “City of New Orleans,” one of the best songs I can think of written about a train. If I were to select thirteen recordings about trains on their merits, a recording of “City of New Orleans” would be chief among them. But which recording? And there we find our dilemma.

The song was written by the late singer/songwriter Steve Goodman and released on his self-titled debut album in 1970. Most folks know the song from the version Arlo Guthie recorded for his Hobo’s Lullaby album in 1972, the version that went to No. 18 and gave Guthrie his only Top 40 hit. But according to All-Music Guide, there are currently 150 CDs out that contain versions of “City of New Orleans,” giving us lot of options.

Whoever sings it, it’s a great song, with a melody that sounds as old as railroading itself, as if it were shipped across America from the nineteenth century instead of coming from anyone’s pen and guitar. And the plain-spoken lyrics paint pictures:

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.

And then the chorus, which was so evocative that it was high-jacked as the title for a television show, where its meaning has, I fear, long been lost:

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.

As I said, a great song, perhaps the greatest American song about railroads. What others would be in the running? Well, “Mystery Train” for certain. Along with “The Midnight Special” and probably a few others. Nominations, anyone?

The above lyrics are from Guthrie’s version, which was changed slightly from Goodman’s original. Goodman’s musical approach was slightly different, too, with more steel guitar and a prominent harmonica. And it’s faster than Guthrie’s version, without the gently rolling feel that seems to mimic a train’s motion. Of the two, I prefer Guthrie’s, for the tempo and the gentle piano underneath the melody.

Beyond those two versions, as I said above, there are plenty of choices. Others listed at All-Music Guide as having recorded the song include Lynn Anderson, Chet Atkins, Back Porch Mary, Joe Brown, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, John Denver, David Hasselhoff, Mike McAdoo, C.W. McCall, the Mountain Folk Band, Holly Near, Jerry Reed, the River City Ramblers, Randy Scruggs, Pete Seeger, the Seldom Scene, Sammi Smith, Hank Snow, Sunnyland Slim and many more.

The version I enjoy most beyond Guthrie’s, though, was the title track of a 1984 album by Willie Nelson. Nelson’s version earned Goodman a posthumous Grammy award for Best Country Song. (Goodman died of leukemia in 1984, the year the album was released.)

Here are Goodman’s original and Nelson’s cover:

Steve Goodman – “City of New Orleans” [1970]

Willie Nelson – “City of New Orleans” [1984])

A personal note: This post is the 500th in this blog’s relatively brief history. I thought about writing about what it means to reach 500 posts. Then I decided it would be a brief post, as the only important thing it means is: I’m still having an immense amount of fun doing this, and it’s great to have a pretty sizable number of readers along for the ride.

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