Posts Tagged ‘Willie Nelson’

‘The Conductor Sings His Song Again . . .’

August 15, 2011

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.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1984

May 10, 2011

Originally posted September 19, 2007

Well, it’s beginning to feel a lot like 1984 here in Minnesota.

Oh, not George Orwell’s 1984, although I could chatter politics for some time and I do have my societal concerns. No, the 1984 I have in mind is Les Steckel’s 1984.

“Les Who?” I hear many of you mutter out there in the cyberworld. ”What record did he release? Did it make the Top 40?”

I’ve mentioned at times my passion for spectator sports. I follow most of the major sports fairly closely, with the exception of professional basketball. I watch a little of that, but not nearly with the regularity or interest with which I follow baseball, football and hockey. Of them all, my favorite sport and team – as measured by the emotional impact of the team’s performance – is professional football and the Minnesota Vikings. And as we sit just past the middle of September, with the autumnal equinox four days away, the NFL season is two games old, and it feels like 1984.

That was the year that Les Steckel took over for the retired Bud Grant as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and promptly led the Vikings to a 3-13 record. It wasn’t the worst season in the team’s history; in 1962, the team’s second season, was a hair worse at 2-11-1. And the uninspiring performance of the team in its first two games this season and the seeming disconnect from reality of the coaching staff (insisting on starting a second-year quarterback who is clearly not capable, right now, of playing that key position well enough to win) leaves me feeling like it’s 1984 all over again. I may be wrong, and I’d like to be wrong. But I think it’s going to be a long season here in the land of longboats and horns.

Luckily for me, in 1984, I was unable to see the vast majority of the Vikings’ games, as I was in graduate school in Missouri. That means that I watched the St. Louis Cardinals (still a few years from their flight to the Arizona desert), who were 9-7, and the Kansas City Chiefs, who were 8-8. The only Vikings game I saw all season was their 27-24 victory over Tampa Bay in early November when I was visiting some friends in northwestern Iowa.

Other than the Vikings’ performance, 1984 was a pretty good year. Grad school was fun and challenging, and I had a good nucleus of friends with whom to spend the free time I had. Nothing particularly stands out about the year, which is good, in retrospect. It was a quiet time. One thing I do recall is my stunned admiration in January when Apple announced the introduction of the Macintosh with a legendary commercial during the Super Bowl.

And here’s a Baker’s Dozen from a quiet year:

“Valotte” by Julian Lennon, Atlantic single 89609

“Countdown to Love” by Greg Phillinganes from the Streets of Fire soundtrack

“Crow Jane” by Sonny Terry from Whoopin’

“Seven Spanish Angels” by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, Columbia single 04715

“Jungle Sweep” by Jimmie Spheeris from Spheeris

“Daddy Said” by Nanci Griffith from Once In A Very Blue Moon

“We Belong” by Pat Benatar, Chrysalis single 42826

“On the Wings of a Nightingale” by the Everly Brothers, Mercury single 880213

“Bobby Jean” by Bruce Springsteen from Born in the U.S.A.

“Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” by Fire Inc. from the Streets of Fire soundtrack

“Highway 61 Revisited” by Bob Dylan from Real Live

“The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, Geffen single 29141

“If This Is It” by Huey Lewis & the News, Chrysalis single 4283

A few notes on some of the songs:

The Julian Lennon single isn’t much of a record to me, even though it reached No. 9 on the charts; I preferred his “Much Too Late For Goodbye,” which went to No. 5 early in 1985. As far as Julian himself goes, I tend to agree with the Rolling Stone Album Guide, which notes that the younger Lennon should be “commended for daring even to whisper after the echo of his formidable father.”

At the time Streets of Fire came out, I was writing occasional movie reviews for the Columbia Missourian, and I gave the film a pretty good review, based partly on the film itself and partly on the music. I looked at the movie a few years ago, and it has not aged well; it seems silly now. But the music is still pretty good, if maybe not to everyone’s taste. The Greg Phillinganes track, “Countdown to Love,” is a sprightly doo-woppy piece, while “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” was one of two bombastic Jim Steinman productions used in the movie, kind of a Great Wall of Sound production that featured, among others, Roy Bittan of the E Street Band on piano. Overblown, yes, but fun.

“Jungle Sweep” is from the album that Jimmie Spheeris completed work on hours before he was killed by a drunk driver on July 4, 1984. It was released by Sony in 2000 but was pulled back by the company shortly after that.

The Everly Brothers’ track was the single from their album EB ’84, a pretty good reunion album. The single was written and produced by Paul McCartney.