City Of New Orleans - by Steve Goodman
Having gone to the Republic of Ireland for my third choice, I choose to go back to the USA for my fourth. To a remarkable song written by an equally remarkable singer/songwriter: a man gifted with a phenomenal voice and blisteringly brilliant guitar technique. That man was the late Steve Goodman: and this was his magnificent song... and here (below) are not quite the original lyrics that he lodged for copyright purposes in the year he wrote the song, 1970, when he was just approaching his 22nd birthday.
I say “not quite”, because those lyrics are not exactly what you hear him sing on my favourite version of his - see also below – but, when I think it over, he almost always changed a word or two (indeed as many as four or five words) every time he sang it. But not, mark you, one really important word (see later).
So here is a fairly accurate song lyric incorporating minor changes he made after 1970. For instance he tended to replace his original use of the word rumblin’, with grumblin’ – not I reckon a clever move, because although the two words are occasionally interchangeable in American English, rumbling is much the better, as it implies a rolling sound, whereas grumbling has connotations - to a British ear like mine – of dissatisfaction...and there was nothing to be dissatisfied about on this glorious train journey....surely? So I have kept his original choice of rumblin’ in.
I have taken it upon myself to use quotation marks within this couplet...
The conductor sings that song again His “passengers will please refrain”
I have done so of course for obvious reasons: Steve is talking about a familiar event that happens to most of us when taking a train. We hear over the loudspeaker words to the effect of “will passengers please refrain from smoking, refrain also from putting your feet on the seats, and please also refrain from making too much noise”.
I felt the need to put those Goodman words in quotes, alas, because I have met two professional singers who frankly did not understand the line, until I explained it to them. Indeed one of them thought that the word refrain was being used in its chorus meaning...!!
And talking of choruses...the very last chorus was initially a repeat of the first chorus...i.e. good morning, not good night. But he soon ditched that: presumably because Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson had done so previously in their versions. And the song is the better for it.
City Of New Orleans 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 They’re out on a southbound odyssey As the train pulls out of Kankakee Rolls past houses, farms and fields Passin' towns that have no name Freight yards full of old black men And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles Chorus Singing, 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 I was dealin' cards with the old men in the club car And it’s penny a point, there ain't nobody keepin' score Won't you pass the paper bag that holds the bottle Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor And the sons of Pullman porters And the sons of engineers Ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steam Mothers with their babes asleep Are rockin' to the gentle beat And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream Chorus Singing, 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 Night time on the City of New Orleans Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee Half way home, and we'll be there by morning Through the Mississippi darkness Rolling to the sea And all the towns and people seem To fade into a bad dream And that steel rail still ain't heard the news The conductor sings that song again His “passengers will please refrain” This train's got the disappearing railroad blues Final Chorus Good night, 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 day is done Repeat Final Chorus Good night, 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 a long long time when day is done
© Turnpike Tom Music 1970
Now, before we come to an analysis of the text, I want to tell you a story about me and this song: about something that happened 30 years ago in 1989, in the days just before the internet, when song lyrics were not easily accessible like they are today.
It was to be another two years before I met my wife, and I was between girl friends. No, do not put 2+2 together to make 69: I am not referring to a position in the Kama Sutra...!! It simply means what I said: the last girlfriend was the past tense, and the next girlfriend was still in the future. So being alone, I did what thousands of others do: I scoured the personal ads.
And then my eyes fell on this classified ad in The Spectator magazine: American academic (f.40) shortly visiting Britain, wltm intelligent male with gsoh for lasting friendship.
Anyway, to cut a long story fairly long, it turned out from correspondence we exchanged, that she was contracted to teach at our prestigious Oxford University for a “semester” (her American word). And soon the day came when I arrived at her residence in a classy apartment right next to Oxford’s Folly Bridge (no doubt well known to you if you are a fan of the Inspector Morse TV series). We clicked immediately, and she invited me to stay the weekend.
We did the usual things that tourists to Oxford do: I took her to walk the “High” (as generations of students had before her); we lingered on Magdalen Bridge; and I ensured we visited Iffley Road running track, to show her where the first four minute mile was achieved. Then, what with her being a professor of English, I took her to George Orwell’s grave and also to Adlestrop...the site of Edward Thomas’s famous short poem. (Both were only a modest drive out of Oxford.) It all went swimmingly until we started trading boozy a cappella songs at 2 am on the Sunday morning.
No, it wasn’t the fact that she’d never heard of her compatriots Cisco Houston, Derroll Adams, Hedy West and Utah Phillips. Heck, what did that matter? No, the real defining moment in what was to be our very short-lived relationship, came when I committed a howler of epic proportions. This is how it happened...but before I explain, I need to again stress that this was in the days just before the arrival of the internet. And song lyrics then, were not just a click of a mouse away, as they are today. If the lyrics were not printed on the album back cover, then you taped the song, and played it line by line, writing down exactly what you heard ...and it is “a given” to say that what the hearer heard was not always what the singer sang...!!
And that simple fact was to prove to be my downfall.
I had told her that my then favourite song was Steve Goodman’s City Of New Orleans. I’d started singing it, and got to the line “They’re out on a southbound odyssey”...and then stopped. For there was a place mentioned in the next line...and you know how it is when you have never seen a word written down: you kinda spell it in your head. And alas, in my head it should have stayed.
However, I unwisely blurted out; “How do you spell the place in the next line? Is the spelling like you Americans spell the word rancour...i.e. rancor?”
She looked at me puzzled. “Is what spelling like rancor?”
“Well, Cancour Quay of course...!!”
She twice asked me to repeat my question, then looked at me as though I had developed three heads. Typical of poor me to never having heard of the epicentre of her neck of the woods.
“You mean you have never heard of Kankakee? K-A-N...”
She spelled the letters out slowly, because now she figured I was a paid-up member of the Dunces’ Club. “It is a city in Illinois, not far from Chicago. I lived there for five years as a child. I am astonished that you do not know it. Astonished, really. Cancor Quay indeed...!!”
How not to impress people, eh? The relationship was never the same afterwards: alas, she had decided I was not intelligent enough for her. If only I could have breathed the words back in. (Well...not really: in truth I felt she was not really intelligent enough for me...but hey, I must stop my delusions of grandeur from running rampant...!!)
Let me stop this article here, as I go off to watch a football match on TV. It is a good place to stop. For when I return to my computer keyboard tomorrow, I will explain why I told you that story. And it is all about words and their meanings...other really famous artistes have tripped up on a key word in this song...and it isn’t Kankakee...!!
[Twelve hours later]
Right, I am back at my desk. I have just re-read what I have written. It is all a bit too wordy. Without further ado, let’s play my favourite version of Steve singing his song.
This was recorded for the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972. I like it, not just for its sound quality, but for something else.
You see, at the age of just 20, Steve was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and given three years to live. Well, he is 24 here in this clip, and in something of a period of remission, but you can still see signs here of his on/off treatment in the few years that were to be left to him. The drugs have puffed up his cheeks somewhat, and this telltale “puffy cheeks” sign was to reappear at the end of his life, when you see the last clips of Steve in concert, just before he died at only 36 years of age.
I also love this version for the fact that Steve’s sweet nostalgic quintessential song of Main Street America is not sung by someone in a tuxedo, but in the garb of the ordinary American blue collar worker.
Please consult the lyrics as you listen. Note that the use of the word tequila was just thrown in for this performance...
Why is this song so magnificent? Yes, of course it has a melody that is very catchy, and a superb chorus. And yes, one gets it, that Goodman has captured the pulse of a great nation with this song, and that the train symbolises American hard work, honesty and determination to get to one’s destination of ...(achieving the American Dream?)
And there are so many key lines. One such is Freight yards full of old black men.
Can you believe it that there are people in America unhappy with that line? Political Correctness gone mad. But folks, please understand, that is exactly what Steve observed from the window as the train pulled out of towns. He wrote down what he saw.
But worst of all is what Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson et al did to his very best line of Passin' towns that have no name.
Oh, that was not all they changed. They changed Ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steam/And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream to steel/feel. I am not happy with it, but I can live with it, as it makes a certain sense.
But when I hear that trio sing passin’ trains that have no name, instead of passing towns...well I just want to cry at the philistinism of such a change.
Why is passing towns that have no name such a magnificent image? Well, I submit it is that when the train has picked up speed and is heading south at a fair old lick, (a) to a traveller who does not intimately know the Mid West, these are truly anonymous towns, in that from the window, the next one (with its almost obligatory grain silo and water tower) looks pretty much like the last one, and (b) you know how it is when an express train flashes through a little railway station...try though you may, you cannot read the name on the station platform. It is just a blur. So they truly are “towns that have no name”
The fact that Arlo Guthrie changed it to "trains" is an obscenity. Let me be charitable and assume that Arlo Guthrie must have fried his brains on bad acid in the 1960s, for him to destroy such a beautifully poetic image. And other stellar performers committed the same crime: though I guess they are less to blame, because they learned the song from Arlo’s hit version. (However, some like Steve’s big buddy John Prine, remained commendably faithful to the original.)
I will take my leave of you with this Steve Goodman version from 1976, a year where I saw him in late July at Cambridge Folk Festival and just before Christmas that year, at a London (Victoria) theatre. This video more than pushes my favourite one very close. I love it for his aforementioned blisteringly good guitar work...and also for his absolutely divinely brave vocal delivery here. What brio...!!
Steve left us with a considerable body of quality work for one who died so soon. But think what more he could have achieved. What a loss he was to the music world. I swear he came from Outer Space.
Thanks for reading.
Dai Woosnam, firstname.lastname@example.org
And now a postscript to this article.
As soon as I sent it to FolkWorld editor Tom Keller, he sent me a YouTube clip completely new to me, of a German immigrant originally from Burkina Faso. The guy – Ezé Wendtoin - just blew me away.
He is singing a song also completely new to me, that was a big hit in the German speaking world back in the mid 1970s. It seems that most Germans over the age of 50 are word-perfect on it. And guess what? It uses this great Goodman melody to tell a totally different story...!!
I hope you enjoyed it like I did. Certainly it succeeded in making me spend an enjoyable few hours digging into the work of the Dresden based musical cooperative, Banda Comunale. And especially into Ezé...a most inspirational fellow. What warmth he has. His back story is a great one: I urge you to go in search of it.
Photo Credits: (1) Dai Woosnam, (2)-(3) Steve Goodman, (4)-(5) Arlo Guthrie, (6)-(7) Banda Internationale (unknown/website).