Steve Goodman's classic train song, the "City of New Orleans" is a masterpiece of storytelling, describing the train ride from Chicago to New Orleans on the Illinois Central Railroad train dubbed the "City of New Orleans" (pictured above). It was written in 1970, back when there were far more passenger trains crossing the country. In fact, around 1976 or so, I took a similar train ride, inspired by this song, from Ft. Worth, Texas to Chicago. It was an experience I'll never forget. I had my guitar with me, and was living this nostalgic journey, seeing parts of America that sadly, barely exist today.
As the song indicates with the lines "fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders", the train I was on was basically empty. In a way, that was a good thing, as I had the train pretty much to myself, allowing me to see the country in a unique way, play guitar and even write some songs. I was just really starting to write at this time, and quite honestly, most of what I wrote sucked. But nonetheless, I was inspired by this song and kept on.
Like any really good song, this one vividly tells a story. Close your eyes and listen to this song, and for about 5 minutes you will be on this train, seeing the sights, interacting with the passengers, and feeling the "rhythm of the rail". Each line creates detailed mental pictures of every aspect of the ride, from start to finish. Here are two great examples:
"and rolls along past houses, farms, and fields,
passing trains that have no names,
and freight yards full of old black men,
and the graveyards of rusted automobiles"
"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 rumblin' 'neath the floor"
You can picture each one of theses lines as you hear it: the houses, the fields, the graveyards, the card game , the paper bag and the bottle. You can feel the rumble of the train wheels. This is storytelling at it's finest. This is what a great song is supposed to do.
He beautifully weaves back and forth from major chords (G, D, C ) to minor chords (Em, Bm ) as the mood within the verses change. The sing-a-long chorus, with its memorable infectious first line " Good morning America, How are you?" stays very joyful with the use of major chords. A single Em chord is used only on the first half on the second line, "Don't you know me?" before shifting back to major chords to conclude that line, " I'm your native son" and the rest of the chorus. It's a relatively simple structure, but perfectly executed. The flow and rhythm of this song keep the listener engaged throughout so that not a single lyric line can be overlooked. This is master songwriting.
Steve Goodman (pictured above shortly before his death) wrote a lot of songs, many of them quirky and whimsical, some covered by Jimmy Buffet. He was huge Chicago Cubs fan, writing songs for his beloved team that they still play in Wriggly Field. "City of New Orleans" was, of course, his greatest achievement. It was turned into a huge hit for both Arlo Guthrie then later, Willie Nelson. Unfortunately, Steve was taken from this world far to early, as he succumbed to Leukemia at age 36. He posthumously won Grammy Awards for this memorable classic.
Below is really good version performed by Lonestar. Listen, close your eyes, and enjoy the ride!