Thanks again to my guests for participating this time around in Turntable Talk, which I hope all of you have enjoyed. As you know, this time out, the topic was “This song’s going places!” . When I had the idea for this topic, it struck me how many great songs are about traveling. Not only are the unlimited number of songs about destinations – “New York , New York” by Sinatra, “Please Come to Boston” by Dave Loggins, “I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman or its cynical counterpoint “Dead Loss (sic) Angeles” by the Stranglers, “A Rainy Night in Georgia”… and on and on endlessly. But even more, there are thousands of quality songs about getting to whereever you’re going. The journey is the event, the memory, sometimes more than the destination.
There’ve been a few about jetting off – “Jet Airliner” by Steve Miller, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” the first hit ever written by John Denver, for instance – and one or two about boats (would we have the term “Yacht Rock” if we didn’t have Christopher Cross’ “Sailing”?) and many about the allure of the highway like the one Deke picked (“Heading out on the Highway”) . From the classic rock of “Highway Star” by Deep Purple to the weird alternative sounds of It’s Immaterial and their “Driving Away From Home” songs of the road appeal to musicians. But all those combined pale next to the number of great train songs.
Early 20th Century songwriters knew it – “Chatanooga Choo-choo”, “The Atkinson, Topeka and Santa Fe” – and even as train travel became less common, songs about it didn’t. Nor did they get worse.
I’ve always been fascinated by trains since I was a little boy. I grew up near the busiest mainline of the CP Rail, twenty, thirty trains a day rumbling along between Toronto and Montreal. I could hear every one of them from my house and could see them rolling from my public school yard. When I hit junior high, we had to run cross country for gym… on a dirt track paralleling the rail lines. When a fast-moving, 80-car freight coincided with my gym class, my already turtlish run times slowed some I can tell you. I spent more than one or two Saturdays with my first little 35mm camera standing along the tracks waiting for the lights of a distant diesel to come into sight and ready to grab some shots of noisy engines and brightly colored freight cars. My dad and I bonded over a model railroad we had dreams of building; we got the table and the rolling stock, I built a couple of 1’87th scale buildings for it. Never got it much done, but even as my dad hit his 80s, it was still in his basement, a bucket list thing for him to finish with me.
That was me, but the “romance of the rails” seemed universal. Best romantic movie of the ’90s? Many would say Before Midnight – a young Ethan Hawke runs into a sexy French girl on a European train and they spend one incredible magical night together in Vienna. Not as easy to pull off on a 747. It’s just a great way to travel. You talk to people and see the world go by leisurely, from a different perspective. Where I grew up, the Go Train was the ideal way to get from the suburbs into midtown Toronto for a ballgame or concert and a $6 ticket. You got a totally different perspective on the city than you would driving through the gridlock on the highway. You saw people’s backyards… the laundry hanging, the vegetable gardens… once in a blue moon, a pretty gal sunbathing nude. But at 60 mph, you couldn’t see her all that well. The backs of stores and factories. The hidden life of the city. It was such a different way of seeing it all. And maybe you’d strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting across from you.
All that in mind, no wonder my choice for the topic would be a train song. But there are a good number of them to choose from – “Midnight Train to Georgia”, “Long Train Running”, my countryman Gordon Lightfoot’s epic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, etc. Kenny Rogers couldn’t have gotten to know “The Gambler” if they were flying Southwest Airlines! But to me, the ultimate “going places” tune was from 1972 – Arlo Guthrie‘s “City of New Orleans”.
I will try not to over-analyze. I loved the song when I was a child and heard it on my transistor AM radio and would sing along. I love it now… but am not inclined to sing along, although no promises if you got me to the club car and I enjoyed a few refreshments!
The song’s a folk classic, and to me it just works in every way. A little bit poignant and sad, a little bit optimistic, a little bit excited about the trip ahead and then the terminus too. But never losing sight of how so much was mundane. A bit like a metaphor for life. And it’s played so well by Guthrie and his musician friends… on the song he was reluctant to do.
And the story of the song parallels the feel of it nicely. Guthrie didn’t write the song, which became, if not his best-known (“Alice’s Restaurant” might take that crown) certainly his best-selling single and only American top 40 hit. In my hometown, it actually hit #6 on the charts. But the song has a story behind it.
Young Chicago folk-singer Steve Goodman wrote it, and was first to record it. But, he ran into his idol, Guthrie, in a bar. He asked him to listen to his song. Guthrie… was reluctant. But he agreed, if the lad bought him a beer. He said he’d listen until his beer ran dry. By the end, he agreed to record it and hopefully bought Goodman a brewski!
Goodman knew “The City of New Orleans” very well. And it turns out, knew a hit song when he wrote one.
“The City of New Orleans” is far from fiction. It was a real train, and the song was derived from real life. It was in fact the flagship luxury train of the Illinois Central Railroad, running the almost thousand miles between Chicago and New Orleans in around sixteen hours… impressive since it stopped in many river delta cities like Cairo,Illinois, Memphis, Jackson, Mississippi and Hammond, Louisiana along the way. Young Goodman went to the University of Illinois and used the train regularly in the ’60s to go the 200-odd miles from Chicago to the campus in Champaign, and sometimes to venture southwards to friends places. He and a school buddy traveled frequently together and he began to write the song around 1967. “He developed the ability to see meaning in mundance activities” his friend said later. Like the people he saw on the train and things he observed out its windows.
When he and his future-wife Nancy took it in 1970 to visit her grandma in southern Illinois,and then back, he finished off the song. “Just outside of Chicago, there was a bunch of old men standing around tin cans, warming themselves and waving”. Graveyards of rusted automobiles. Passing trains that have no names. “Nancy was still asleep, so I went down to the club car, and ended up playing cards with a couple of old men.”
Ahh yes, the club car. The City of New Orleans was the height of luxury when it was launched in 1947. It had an observation car, glass roof and all, a bar, a diner, a ladies’ lounge. Usually it carried 18 cars behind a couple of gleaming, shiny new E7 diesel locomotives, clad in elegant orange and brown. When you think of “glamorous train trips” or maybe a Hitchcock scene played out via train, this was the type of train you think of. It was busy and kept turning a profit for the IC into the ’60s. But by the time Goodman was a college kid and rode it, things were different. Air travel was coming down in price and I55 had opened up making a quick highway run south feasible. The train dropped its observation car, cut its online staff and from many reports, cleaning crew too. The streamlined engines built in the ’40s were breaking down far too often. Most railways were looking for ways to shed their passenger service. This bothered the songwriter, who saw them (correctly) as environmentally-friendly and pleasantly social.
He reflected that well in four minutes. But there was another sad parallel between song and writer.
Just as the train was beginning to lose money and esteem, Goodman felt he was nearing his final destination too. He’d been diagnosed with leukemia and worried he wouldn’t live long. That’s why he was emphatic with Guthrie. He was determined to get someone known to record it, to sell records and in doing make money for him. For his wife that he assumed would be a widow soon.
Sadly, he was right. He succumbed to his cancer in 1984, while just 36 years old. Right around when Willie Nelson’s cover of it was on the country charts and would win a Grammy . Willie did a fine cover, but for me the Arlo Guthrie version was greenlit; the one on the right track.
And the train? Well, it had its ups and downs. Before Arlo’s song hit the charts, Illinois Central – and every other main American rail line – had discontinued passenger trains and the government had started Amtrak to take over. What’s more, the Illinois Central itself with its “Main Street of Middle America” nickname and bright orange boxcars has now been bought out by … Canadian National! International free trade and all. But Amtrak restarted “The City of New Orleans” with newer equipment. As of 2022, it still garnered over 150 000 riders a year…. maybe some afraid of flying. Maybe some who just want to see for themselves those trains with no names, the frieght yards full of old black men and the graveyards of rusted automobiles, maybe go to the club car and pass the paper bag that holds the bottle around. Experience life as it used to be, take some time and say “Good Morning America, how are ya?”.
And yes, that is where ABC got the inspiration for their morning TV show’s name.
“The City of New Orleans”. This song is going places. And takes me places, every time I hear it.