The City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman.
It’s been only five days since the state-wide Illinois shelter in place order went into effect and a week or so longer since geezers like me were advised to stay the hell at home. I do get out daily to walk one of the dogs or just perambulate around the neighborhood for exercise. I get some rides in my wife Kathy’s car figuring that is safe. And I am still doing grocery and pharmacy shopping during Jewel-Osco’s early morning senior hours taking all social distancing precautions. Even so, the psychology of feeling cooped up makes my mind wander
Steve Goodman in overalls with pal John Prine at the Earl of Old Town, 1972.
There is probably no better train song than the nostalgic The City of New Orleans. It was written by the great Steve Goodman in 1970 and he first sang it for Arlo Guthrie at the old Quiet Knight when it was still located on Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town. It was an immediate favorite of local audiences during the Great Chicago Folk Scare. Steve recorded it on his 1971 debut album. John Denver was the first artist to cover it on his album Aerie but he was not yet an established star. Shortly after Guthrie put it on his album Hobo’s Lullaby and the single reached #4 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart and #18 on the Hot 100 chart, I Arlo’s only top-40 hit and one of only two he would have on the Hot 100. The song became so identified with Guthrie that most people thought he wrote it.
The City of New Orleans hit the charts a second time in 1984 for Willie Nelson. It reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and Goodman was posthumously awarded Best Country Song at the 27th Grammy Awards in 1985.
The City of New Orleans in its blue and orange Illinois Central livery.
The song was inspired by Goodman’s rides on the legendary Illinois Central Rail Road passenger train which ran from Chicago to the Crescent City while traveling with his wife to visit her down state Illinois family. It struck a chord with anyone who remembers the great passenger trains.
I got first got acquainted with Steve when he was a regular attraction at the Earl of Old Town and occasionally shared a libation with him and Fred and Ed Holstein at Somebody Else’s Troubles on Lincoln Avenue and then at Holstein’s. We bonded a bit over our mutual love for the then hapless Chicago Cubs. And it was a great personal joy for me when he came up to the Federal Prison in Sandstone, Minnesota to play a concert for us inmates in 1973 when I was doing my stretch for draft resistance.
Goodman singing Go Cubs Go! at Wrigley Field not long before his death.
But everyone was Steve’s friend. I don’t think that there was anyone who ever met him who didn’t love him. And he retained his ebullience, grace, and charm even as he battled the leukemia, the scourge that finally killed him, on September 20, 1984. That was just four days before the Cubs clinched the National League Eastern title for the first time ever, earning them their first post-season appearance since 1945. Since the next spring Cubs fans have been singing along with Goodman’s recording of Go Cubs Go! after every home game.