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Boomer Hymns: City of New Orleans

Say, don’t you know me, I’m your native son

You might think you know the best version of this hymn but if it isn’t Steve Goodman’s version you don’t.

“Steve was exactly who he appeared to be: an ambitious, well-adjusted man from a loving, middle-class Jewish home in the Chicago suburbs, whose life and talent were directed by the physical pain and time constraints of a fatal disease which he kept at bay, at times, seemingly by willpower alone . . . Steve wanted to live as normal a life as possible, only he had to live it as fast as he could . . . He extracted meaning from the mundane. — His wife, Nancy

While at the Quiet Knight, Goodman saw Arlo Guthrie and asked him to sit and let him play a song for him. Guthrie grudgingly agreed on the condition that Goodman buy him a beer first; Guthrie would then listen to Goodman for as long as it took Guthrie to drink the beer. Goodman played “City of New Orleans”, which Guthrie liked enough that he asked to record it.

Guthrie’s version of Goodman’s song became a Top-20 hit in 1972 and provided Goodman with enough financial and artistic success to make his music a full-time career. The song, about the Illinois Central’s City of New Orleans train, would become an American standard, covered by such musicians as Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Chet Atkins, Lynn Anderson, and Willie Nelson, whose recorded version earned Goodman a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1985. A French translation of the song, “Salut Les Amoureux”, was recorded by Joe Dassin in 1973. A Dutch singer, Gerard Cox, heard the French version while on holiday and translated it into Dutch, titled “‘t Is Weer Voorbij Die Mooie Zomer” (“And again that beautiful summer has come to an end”). It reached number one on the Dutch Top 40 in December 1973 and has become a classic which is still played on Dutch radio. A Hebrew version of the song “Shalom Lach Eretz Nehederet” was sung by famous Israeli singer Yehoram Gaon in 1977 and became an immediate hit. Lyrically, the French, Dutch and Hebrew versions bear no resemblance to Goodman’s original lyrics. According to Goodman, the song was inspired by a train trip he and his wife took from Chicago to Mattoon, Illinois.[4] According to the liner notes on the Steve Goodman anthology No Big Surprise, “City of New Orleans” was written while on the campaign trail with Senator Edmund Muskie.  — La Wik

[ HT: Open thread 3/19/21 – The New Neo

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passing trains that have no name
And freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

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

Dealing card games with the old men in the club car
Penny a point, ain’t no one keeping score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor
And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel
And mothers with their babes asleep
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

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

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Half way home, we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea
But all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rail still ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings his songs again
The passengers will please refrain
This train got the disappearing railroad blues

Good night 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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tom Hyland March 19, 2021, 8:40 PM

    I experienced a great intimate moment standing close by, beer in hand, as Steve Goodman played City of New Orleans inside the New Sheridan Hotel. This was during the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1980. Steve had played onstage earlier in the day and was wandering about town with his guitar. The festival was a much smaller affair back then and you could sleep in the back of your truck and park anywhere you liked. The song is as classic as Dixie or America the Beautiful. Steve was such a diminutive and unassuming kind of guy. I know he was amazed, as everyone was, by the popularity of his song. I had no idea he was sick. Three years later he was out of here.

  • PA Cat March 19, 2021, 9:43 PM

    My favorite Steve Goodman song is “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request”– as a fan of another hapless National League team (the not-so-lovable losers from Philadelphia), I’ve always empathized with Cubs fans. And of course, Steve is now watching the Angels play, just as his song says:

    According to another Cubs fan, Steve’s ashes were scattered on Wrigley Field.

  • jd March 20, 2021, 5:46 AM

    Thank you for the video. Love to see the joy in what
    he is doing. Knowing his story now, his attitude is

  • Snakepit Kansas March 20, 2021, 5:47 AM

    I was drunk the day my mamma got out of prison…

  • Kevin in PA March 20, 2021, 7:11 AM

    …I was standing in the rain, waiting on a train, when a got run over by a pick up truck.

    Kidding aside, I think Goodman was an authentic American folk singer and songwriter. Died way before his time.

  • Rob De Witt March 20, 2021, 7:35 AM

    I was born in Springfield, Illinois in April of 1945, five months after my dad was killed in France while fighting with Patton. Next month I’ll be 76.

    In 1952 I had Polio, and while I was in the hospital my mother bought a 2-story house on South 4th Street. The front upstairs bedroom was mine, facing the houses across the street behind which was the Illinois Central right-of-way on 3rd Street. I fell asleep at night to the sound of trains creeping through town. The City of New Orleans ran by my window.

    Two blocks behind me was South 6th Street, the in-town portion of Route 66.

    Is that American, or what?

  • CW March 20, 2021, 8:32 AM

    Thanks for that. For some reason, it brought a bit of moisture to my eyes.

  • gwbnyc March 20, 2021, 12:49 PM

    “Is that American, or what?”

    -and then some.

    1/4 mile from the New York Central System (my grandfather was an engineer) and Nickel Plate Road tracks. At night I could hear the wheels “ring”, a sound beneath the clackety-clack. I’m remembering, too, the neighbor’s cuckoo clock marking the initial morning hours.

    Had to listen hard to find them.

  • Bunk Strutts March 20, 2021, 2:22 PM

    “Donald and Lydia” is a good one, too. Didn’t realize it was a John Prine song.
    “Lydia hid her thoughts like a cat,
    Behind two small eyes sunk deep in her fat.”

  • Mitchell Strand March 21, 2021, 11:55 AM

    Willie Nelson does a fine cover of the song.

  • captflee March 21, 2021, 1:46 PM

    When John Prine died of the COVID, my sadness was eased by the thought that he and Steve were thus reunited elsewhere, picking up a storm, John smoking on that nine mile long cigarette. I shall ever treasure the memories of seeing those two lads on the Riverboat President nearly forty years ago, and be forever grateful for their assistance in sending us all the solace of their music in this trying time.

  • Christopher L Hunt March 21, 2021, 6:23 PM

    One of my fondest memories is Jimmy Buffet singing the National Anthem at the first game of the 1984 NLCS and dedicating it to Steve Goodman, who had dies a couple of months earlier. The Cubs won 13-0.

  • Marilee Godsil March 22, 2021, 9:17 AM

    My boyfriend and I saw Arlo Guthrie with Steve Goodman as the opening act at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, early in 1978. I was new to Goodman’s music. “City of New Orleans” was a haunting melody. However, he sung a song with the line, “She sees her unborn children in his eyes”. That sealed the deal for me. We married soon after.

  • Ken Price March 22, 2021, 10:41 AM

    True story: In the late ’60’s I often took the City of New Orleans from Chicago to Champaign/Urbana, where I went to school at the University of Illinois. On one trip after some school break, the train was packed to the gills with returning students and I could not find a seat (I boarded in Homewood, the last stop in the Chicago area). I knew the restrooms were divided into two compartments, one with the toilet and the second with the wash basin plus a couple chairs. I stuck my head into one of the heads and saw the seats were empty, so I took one. A little while later the conductor came in and took the other seat. He began talking to me of his life on the railroad, which he clearly loved deeply. He knew the world was changing and railroad passenger travel was coming to an end. I didn’t fully appreciate his comments at the time (I was still a teenager), but when I first heard the Arlo Guthrie version a few years later, the line about the conductor talking about the disappearing railroad blues (or whatever that line is) hit me like a brick and I understood what that conductor was telling me. I often wonder if Steve Goodman had that same conversation with that conductor. I love this song.

  • Rob Muir March 22, 2021, 1:07 PM

    Mr. Goodman’s music is immortal. The City of New Orleans is surely his most renowned. I also love The Ballad of Penny Evans. Always brings a tear or two to my eyes.