This song is an American classic written by the country/folk master songwriter Steve Goodman (also known for David Alan Coe’s quirky country hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”). It describes the voyage of the Amtrak City of New Orleans line from Chicago to New Orleans across middle America. Amtrak discontinued the City of New Orleans service for a period during the 1990s, but I believe it is up and running again. Sadly Goodman’s description of “fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders” holds about as true now as it did in the 1960s when the song was written.
Goodman has a wonderful ability to play with you ear in his lyrics. Consider the line in the last verse “The conductor sings his song again/the passengers will please refrain.” To those who have never ridden a train: at each station, the conductor makes an announcement asking the passengers to refrain from flushing the toilets while in the station. Goodman picks up that line (i.e. the conductor’s song) and seems to be asking the passengers to sing along (“refrain” in the musical sense of the word) as the train makes its voyage through the darkness and fades out of our lives.
When Arlo Guthrie covered this song, he changed Goodman’s lyrics in the first verse to “passing trains that have no names” and lost part of the point. (Willie Nelson used Arlo’s lyrics in his cover of the song). As the train rumbles across rural Illinois, it passes through dozens of faceless small towns with no train stations and the less glamorous industrial suburbs of the cities. I’ve recorded it using Goodman’s original lyrics.
Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and 25 sacks of mail
All along its southbound odyssey the train pulls out at Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passing towns that have no names
And freight-yards full of old, black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles
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 500 miles when the day is done
Dealing cards 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
And feel the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor
And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep
Rocking to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel
Good morning America, how are you? . . .
Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Halfway home, we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea
And all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings his song again
The passengers will please refrain
This train has got to disappear in railroad blues
Good night America, how are you? . . .