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The Best Train Song Ever Written
December 19, 2011 7:34 AM   Subscribe

The train they call the City of New Orleans began operations in 1947 carrying passengers from Chicago to New Orleans daily. Although the train service remained popular through the 60's, by 1970 train travel was on the decline. That's when native Chicagoan Steve Goodman and his new bride, Nancy, rode the train down to visit her folks in New Orleans. That trip inspired Goodman to write The City of New Orleans and an American folk/country standard was born. The song would go on to earn Goodman a posthumous Grammy 14 years later.

Steve Goodman's 1971 recording was a critical but not a commercial success. It was Arlo Guthrie's version from his 1972 album Hobo's Lullaby that made the song into a hit. Folk musicians like Judy Collins and John Denver were quick to add the song to their repertoire. Joe Dessin recorded a French version.

The American Country music world also fell in love with the song. It was covered by Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Reed (my favorite version.) 1984 Willie Nelson's 1984 album, The City of New Orleans was named after the first track. That version won a Grammy for Steve Goodman for best country song; sadly Goodman had died a few months earlier of the leukemia he had been diagnosed with when he was 19.

As for the train itself, Amtrak took over services from Illinois Central in 1971 and they changed the name to The Panama Express. However because of the popularity of the song the name was changed back in 1981. In 1999, the City of New Orleans hit a semi-truck loaded with steel that was blocking the tracks; there were 11 fatalities and over $14 million in damages. In 2004, there was another fatality when the train was derailed in Flora, Mississippi.

You can still ride the train today
. The 900 mile trip will cost you about $115 and take about 19 hours, barring delays.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy (44 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Steve Goodman is an American Saint in the pantheon with Jim Henson, Louis Armstrong, and Fred Rogers.

This is a fantastic post. Thank you.
posted by koeselitz at 7:45 AM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's an awesome song, but shitty train service. I've been on trains on 4 continents and the ride on the City of New Orleans stands out for generally crappy service and facilities. At least with 3rd class service on Indian Railways you know what to expect but Amtrak stands out for not knowing how to run passenger rail. Jeez, how does it take longer to take the train than just to drive it yourself?
posted by Runes at 7:48 AM on December 19, 2011


From what I recall, Amtrak actually gets rights to the lines from the freight companies that own the lines, which naturally give Amtrak a lower priority than their own freight trains. Which is why you may end up sitting on a siding for 8 hours.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:50 AM on December 19, 2011


From what I recall, Amtrak actually gets rights to the lines from the freight companies that own the lines, which naturally give Amtrak a lower priority than their own freight trains. Which is why you may end up sitting on a siding for 8 hours.

...which constitutes not knowing how to run passenger rail.
posted by Dysk at 7:56 AM on December 19, 2011


NYT op-ed:
The private freight companies that own most of the tracks used by Amtrak outside the Boston-New York-Washington corridor fail to yield the rails to passenger trains — despite a federal regulation that Amtrak is supposed to have “preference over freight transportation” in using tracks.... Amtrak’s on-time performance on freight-owned tracks decreased 50 percent from 1999 to 2005. Last April, 54 percent of all system delays for long-distance trains resulted from “freight train interference” and “slow orders.”
posted by dhartung at 7:58 AM on December 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's not that America doesn't know how to run passenger rail, it's that for the most part, unfortunately, we don't care.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:59 AM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Caring about the passengers is part of knowing how to run passenger rail.
posted by Dysk at 8:02 AM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


My point, my fine robotic friend, is that outside of the NE corridor, passenger rail service is not a priority in America.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:09 AM on December 19, 2011


And to un-derail and bring us back to the song, I really like Willie Nelson's version. That harmonica/drum cadence really evokes the rhythm of riding a train.
posted by Runes at 8:14 AM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Didn't they use this song to sell cars? I have the faint recollection of the lyric "It's the car they call Chrysler Cordoba..."
posted by entropicamericana at 8:20 AM on December 19, 2011


Such an intense, bittersweet song... you can feel the hope and optimism draining out of the nation, mourning the promise that was never fulfilled - as HST put it, "We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

Listening to that song now does not put me in a Good Place, especially after OWS... frustration and futility, the mean and helpless writhing of insects in the shadow of elephants. The song's a eulogy for the pride in place and occupation and themselves that most Americans had once... now just a phantom locomotive sounding its horn in the distance, trailing away, never to return.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:21 AM on December 19, 2011


I've ridden this train a bunch due to a fear of flying inflicted SO. Carp all you want about it's profit margin or whatever, but I maintain a good train ride across America is one of the things in life everyone should experience at least once. Related
posted by timsteil at 8:22 AM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I took the CONO in 1980 or 1981. It was spring break from the University of Illinois in Champaign and I was going to visit my sister in New Orleans. It was great that I could walk to the train, pay a relatively small sum and eventually end up in NO.

The ride was so bumpy that I couldn't read any of my books that I brought along, so I was dreading a long, boring, bumpy ride. But across the aisle from me was a group of retired men from Joliet heading south for a golf vacation. They took me under their wing, bought a bunch of beer from the bar car before it closed down at midnight and we stayed up and drank all night.

It was a full night of retired men giving a young person at the start of their working life beer-laden life and career advice. I don't remember any of the specifics now, but I remember that by the time we reached New Orleans, I realized that there was a completely different set of challenges that awaited me when I finished university, and that I was now ever-so-slightly better prepared to meet them.

I wonder if any of those men realized that I would still remember them 30 years on.
posted by nightwood at 8:28 AM on December 19, 2011 [13 favorites]


This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

You are welcome.

I woke up with this song in my head a week ago. I finally tracked it down to a Judy Collins record I had been listening to and the more I listened to the song, the more I loved it. Looking on line for lyrics I found a bunch of history about the train and the song and I thought "This would make a good music documentary." That's when I decided to make it into a post on MetaFilter.

I do love the Willie Nelson version for the harmonica and the Chet Atkins version for the pickin' but it's the Jerry Reed version I love best for the beautiful guitar playing as well as the great vocals. Frankly, I think the Arlo Guthrie is the worst-- he is using a faux-Bob Dylan nasal voice that you don't hear in later Guthrie songs. My husband and I laughed when we listened and we wondered how in the hell Bob Dylan bamboozled the folk world into thinking nasal singing was a good way to go.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:33 AM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not sure about the chicken and egg factor here, but this tune reached it's nadir with David Hartman, and a certain ABC morning show.
posted by timsteil at 8:37 AM on December 19, 2011


I used to ride the City of New Orleans between Champaign and Chicago pretty frequently. It was always quite nice--I used to love sitting in the observation car, watching the sun set over the prairie. Never encountered the delays others have mentioned.

For me, this post comes at exactly the wrong time--I'll be making the trip from NOLA to Chicago tomorrow, by car. And glancing at the railway tracks with envy along the way. But thanks for the excellent post, all the same.
posted by washburn at 8:43 AM on December 19, 2011


Not the City of New Orleans, but I tend to use Amtrak to get to Philadelphia to see my mom. I could fly, but the time from door to door works out pretty close, as does the price usually, and no one is frisking me or x-raying my ass (well, not yet). Anyway, a few years ago, my mom fell down a flight of stairs onto her head and ended up in the hospital (she does not do things by half). I threw some stuff in a bag, went down to the station and caught an early train. There had been a lot of fairly powdery snow, so, as we took off in the winter dawn, the train kicked it up in great fans of white spray on either side of the tracks. It pretty much took my mind off my worries, which, I assure you, flying would not have done.

In a slightly related musical vein, Nanci Griffith's "Banks of the Pontchartrain" talks about taking the train south, and there just aren't that many ways to get from Montreal to New Orleans that don't involve the City of New Orleans. Which probably should not be confused with other songs with Banks of the Pontchartrain in the title, only some of which involve trains....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:03 AM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm jealous of those of you who regularly take the train; I live 1/2 block from a train station but the train no longer stops here. The trains fly by about 8 or 10 times a day. Recently we had a train go by during the city's Christmas Parade down Main Street which runs parallel to the train tracks; the noise drowned out the high school band.

Every once in awhile my husband and I will talk about catching the train in Raleigh to go to Washington D.C. but it would just be as easy to drive and then we would have the car in Washington.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:12 AM on December 19, 2011


I respectfully suggest that any of the Reuben family of songs — particularly Long Steel Rail — knocks CONO into a cocked hat.
posted by scruss at 9:14 AM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I took the City of New Orleans from Chicago to NOLA about 12 years ago. The train stopped near Cairo, IL sometime in the middle of the night so that state troopers could come on and remove the gentleman who threatened someone in the bar car with a knife. He turned out not to have a ticket. We spent another hour in Memphis while the conductor explained to the guy's family why he wasn't on the train. On top of this, the air conditioning turned on at night, which meant after sweating lightly all day, we froze in our seats and had to buy a scratchy acrylic Amtrak blanket to keep warm. In all, it took 20+ hours to get to New Orleans, and was not much fun on the way.

But yeah, the song is great.
posted by me3dia at 9:15 AM on December 19, 2011


The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin' towns that have no names


It's not nearly as romantic as the lyrics, but that's central Illinois for ya...
posted by lstanley at 9:16 AM on December 19, 2011


It's an awesome song, but shitty train service.

In my experience, this isn't remotely true, in the context of US transportation--train, bus and flight included. I've taken the train about, oh, 15-20 times (including a sleeper from Chicago, all the way down) and never even experienced major lateness (at least nothing compared to the four-hour lateness I experienced on the West Coast, and have experienced with flights). I wish the train still had a full dining car, but it's had an observation car on recent trips, which made up for the full dining car loss, for me.
posted by raysmj at 10:01 AM on December 19, 2011


Loooooongtime Steve Goodman fan here. Thanks for the post.

Small personal Steve Goodman bit:

I was the stage manager for the popular concert commitee at my college for 3 years. I got meet a lot of big-name musicians; some of them were nice and others were complete dicks. Anyhow, we had Steve Goodman and John Prine in to perform together. For anyone who doesn't know, John and Steve were great buddies who wrote and performed together whenever possible. I spent most of two days with them, from setup, to soundcheck, to dinner, to loadout and lunch and a little sightseeing the next day.

They were, without a doubt, the funniest, most gracious, most real performers I ever had the pleasure to work with. Steve's untimely death was a real loss.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:04 AM on December 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Uggg... I hate the City of New Orleans train. Going from Champaign to Chicago is pretty cheap. But if you want to catch the last train back you pay two or three times the price because you have to take the City of New Orleans and not a cheaper, commuter train. At that point it becomes just as expensive for me to drive, so that's what I do.
posted by sbutler at 10:11 AM on December 19, 2011


The City of New Orleans' recent on-time performance is on par with the recent record of most US airlines, it appears. Around 80 percent, in both cases.
posted by raysmj at 10:31 AM on December 19, 2011


The conductor sings his songs again: "Passengers will please refrain …"
posted by gubo at 10:42 AM on December 19, 2011


And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.


My amazingly talented godfather used to sing this song, and it's one that I have since learned to play/sing on guitar. Thess etwo lines never fail to bring tears to my eyes.
posted by frecklefaerie at 11:15 AM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Didn't they use this song to sell cars? I have the faint recollection of the lyric "It's the car they call Chrysler Cordoba..."

Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra. My fifth grade music teacher would now like to have a word with you about making fun of music.

Arlo sang the song live at the end of an NPR interview show about ten years back. I was driving and had to pull over until he was done. He just had his guitar and his voice, which was ragged and shaky, and he sang it slower than usual. It was a lament but resigned to the fate. Insanely sad. When I got home I grabbed the show (off of RealPlayer, no less) and made an MP3 of it. It's the most beautiful version I've ever heard.

In the past year and a half I have taken Amtrak to Chicago, DC, Williamsburg VA and Portland, Maine. I've gone from Boston to Florida with a stop in North Carolina, and back. Last night I came home on Acela Express 2253 from New York. I have stopped flying altogether because domestic air travel in America is insanely dehumanizing. Whatever you save by flying, time and/or money, it's not worth living your life like you're in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

I could probably also count up all the hours I've spent delayed and it will go over 48. Except for one major incident, I've gone along with all very happily. It's all part of the adventure and I didn't have anywhere I really needed to be tomorrow anyway. There's an attitude among rail passengers however that delays are delays and if you go in for rail travel in America, you're more committed to the journey than the destination or even the ETA. I believe this attitude is called Stockholm Syndrome and it comes free the first time your porter says "Just came back from the club car and thought you might like a cup."
posted by Spatch at 11:30 AM on December 19, 2011


Caring about the passengers is part of knowing how to run passenger rail.

Dysk, I know you just want to make your own particular point, but Amtrak's lack of rights on rails outside a few places dates to the way Amtrak was formed (ie, it took over the common carrier obligations of most of the railroads in this country, allowing them to legally shed their passenger rail responsibilities while preserving their freight business. Else, both the passenger and freight rail service would have disappeared entirely.

Amtrak pays the marginal cost of operation on the non-Amtrak rails it runs on, meaning that it costs basically very little to operate on most corridors - wheras they would normally have to handle the full cost of maintaining thousands of miles of rail while running fairly infrequent rail service (for instance, one train a day runs the route between Seattle and Chicago). It generally runs pretty good service on the corridors it owns (ie, basically the whole line from DC to Boston).

Remember that Amtrak also operates on a shaky annual appropriation (Congress or the President in some years has voted to defund the system completely). With a budget of 1.3 billion, Amtrak is still moving 25 million passengers a year. Thats not a lot of money to keep an entire country worth of railcars and locomotives, staff, maintenence workers, and operations as well, but they do it. it is NOT enough money to maintain an entire country of rail infrastructure too.
posted by waylaid at 11:31 AM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


The song's a eulogy for the pride in place and occupation and themselves that most Americans had once...

Really? When, exactly was this wonderful, magical time when everything in America was so peachy keen?
posted by yoink at 11:36 AM on December 19, 2011


Remember that Amtrak also operates on a shaky annual appropriation (Congress or the President in some years has voted to defund the system completely). With a budget of 1.3 billion, Amtrak is still moving 25 million passengers a year. Thats not a lot of money to keep an entire country worth of railcars and locomotives, staff, maintenence workers, and operations as well, but they do it. it is NOT enough money to maintain an entire country of rail infrastructure too.

Never mind that the right cynically and disingenuously attacks any subsidization of passenger rail service.

ALL major passenger rail systems around the world are heavily subsidized, both directly and through high fuel taxes. The rest of the world sees a social benefit in passenger rail. America is fucking clueless, as usual.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:50 AM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The song's a eulogy for the pride in place and occupation and themselves that most Americans had once...

Really? When, exactly was this wonderful, magical time when everything in America was so peachy keen?
posted by yoink at 2:36 PM on December 19 [+] [!]

Oh, well, maybe a generation or two back. I grew up in a milltown, the centerpiece of which was the steel mill, but dozens of other industries surrounded the place. And I distinctly recall old guys taking a great deal of pride in their work. Union men (and yes, mostly men) who were proud that they'd put in an honest day's labor and that their work was good for the country. So while I don't look at the world through rose-colored glasses, neither do I automatically deny that earlier generations saw their work differently.
posted by etaoin at 12:08 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, well, maybe a generation or two back.

Let's see, that would be 50 years ago: 1961. Jim Crow was still pretty much in effect throughout the South and it was illegal for a black person to marry a white person in many states. Medicare wouldn't come into being for another four years, so many old people were dying in misery because they couldn't afford medical treatment. A man could not legally be charged with raping his wife. A woman couldn't open a bank account without her husband's signature. Etc. etc. etc.

I don't mean particularly to jump on you, but I'm getting a little fed up with all this BS nostalgia for a mythically wonderful past from which everything has been permanently in decline. You hear it on both the left and the right these days and it's pretty completely bogus from both sides. The last thing progressives should be doing is sighing about how wonderful everything used to be when they have real and dramatic policy victories to point to and compelling stories to tell about how government actions can dramatically improve people's lives.
posted by yoink at 12:44 PM on December 19, 2011


I'm getting a little fed up with all this BS nostalgia for a mythically wonderful past from which everything has been permanently in decline. You hear it on both the left and the right these days and it's pretty completely bogus from both sides. The last thing progressives should be doing is sighing about how wonderful everything used to be when they have real and dramatic policy victories to point to and compelling stories to tell about how government actions can dramatically improve people's lives.
posted by yoink

See, this is what I need to live a better, more meaningful life -- some snot nose cheesdick to come in and piss in my Quisp, and tell me my memories are like totally bogus man, and I should mope around and whinge about how everything is in decline.

Fuck you shortbus. Get off that green thing I own.
posted by timsteil at 1:25 PM on December 19, 2011


I should mope around and whinge about how everything is in decline.

Um, that's exactly the opposite of what this particular snot nose cheesedick was telling you.
posted by yoink at 1:41 PM on December 19, 2011


ALL major passenger rail systems around the world are heavily subsidized, both directly and through high fuel taxes. The rest of the world sees a social benefit in passenger rail. America is fucking clueless, as usual.

We *do* have the world's best freight rail network and move an enormous number of goods (42% of our nation's freight measured in ton-miles) - it's reallly a model that other countries often want to emulate.

We need to renew our passenger rail network infrastructure - we also could use a very robust intercity bus network as well for the intercity mobility needs where seperated right of ways isn't needed to avoid congestion. Intercity bus service (with the excpetion of the Northeast corridor and some other places like the Midwest) isn't great and is usually limited to bottom-feeder Greygound Service (not the premium service Greyhound-run Bolt Bus or other companies like Megabus)
posted by waylaid at 2:04 PM on December 19, 2011


Going from Champaign to Chicago is pretty cheap. But if you want to catch the last train back you pay two or three times the price because you have to take the City of New Orleans and not a cheaper, commuter train.

I found $26 vs. $38, but anyway, that's because the non-CONO train is subsidized by IDOT. I'm not sure why them new-fangled computer thingies can't figure out that a Champaign-Chicago ticket is entirely within Illinois regardless of where the train started, but there you have it.

The rest of the world sees a social benefit in passenger rail. America is fucking clueless, as usual.

Maybe inching toward a clue: Riding High-Speed Rail to a U.S. Recovery

I think it's just possible that this time, enough money is out there in enough pots tipped just so that we'll end up with some sort of halfway HSR network, enough to get people seeing it actually working and affecting their daily lives, instead of some sort of "See America at see level" nostalgia exercise.

It's going to hurt, being in Wisconsin, and watching the Chicago-Twin Cities route sort of arc around us (they have now chosen a Mississippi Valley route, meaning that the two cities in Wisconsin with real train service will be Milwaukee and ... La Crosse.)

When, exactly was this wonderful, magical time when everything in America was so peachy keen?

Well, there was this time we had a working passenger rail network. I've seen it in movies; apparently it served its purpose well. I don't think it's declinism to wonder why that went away, nor do I think we necessarily traded it in barter for other social advances.
posted by dhartung at 2:18 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I thought the twin cities/Chicago high speed rail was nixed last year by the governor of Wisconsin.
posted by dinty_moore at 2:52 PM on December 19, 2011


The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin' towns that have no names


I thought the lyrics went: "passing trains that have no names"? (not overtaking them trains, but passing them in sidings or coming the other way on double tracks).
posted by ovvl at 5:02 PM on December 19, 2011


It is "passing towns" according to the Steve Goodman preservation society (posted lyrics are here. However John Denver changed some of the lyrics and he did change it from passing towns to passing trains.

Other changes:

Won't you pass the paper bag that holds the bottle--> Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle

Ride their father's magic carpet made of steam--> Ride their fathers' magic carpet made of steel

And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream--> And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:05 PM on December 19, 2011


Yoink, having grown up in the 1960s, I'm not all that nostalgic about Jim Crow (though with the passage of several civil rights laws, I think you're putting Jim Crow in the wrong decade, but that's a quibble.) I'm well aware of the banking laws, the spousal rape standards, old enough to remember classified job and apartment ads that discriminated, etc., etc. I'm talking only about workers and their attitudes about their product--I wrote many an obit in the last 1960s and early 1970s of guys who had spent 40 years at the mill and were proud of their accomplishments. There was also a bit of loyalty that went both ways--you worked, did your job and the company didn't depart for India and brag about how it had saved its stockholders a few bucks.
posted by etaoin at 3:23 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


We can almost certainly say correctly that some things in the past were actually better measured by our standards today, while some things were worse. Rosy romanticization is not a clear-eyed picture of the past, but neither is universal condemnation. There are things in America's past that it would be very good if we could regain, for example, well-paying secure jobs that did not require a college education, as well as things we're almost all very glad we've lost.
posted by Miko at 5:52 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the 50's and 60's, things were getting better. Wages were increasing, social inequality was decreasing, Jim Crow was on the ropes and the whole country knew it's time was passing, personal freedom was growing, art and music and science was exploding into new and fantastic directions.

Then came the Chicago Convention and that was followed by Nixon, which put an end to dreams of democratic prosperity, and replaced them with increasing and permanent inequality (and stuck the Jimmy Carter with the blame for the economic mess), and the horrible mess of Vietnam became an unbridled nightmare of evil.

By '71, everyone knew it was over. Everything - the power of the middle class, true equality for blacks and latinos, American industry, America's self-image as the "good" superpower, the public's thirst for cultural experimentation. Gone, over, done.

We see small resurgences, fits and starts of progress made here and there, bringing us further. It's hard to remember sometimes how incredibly far, how incredibly quickly, we traveled as a culture in the first two post-war decades.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:26 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought the twin cities/Chicago high speed rail was nixed last year by the governor of Wisconsin.

He nixed the Milwaukee-Madison link that would have eventually connected to the Twin Cities under the Midwest HSR initiative, which had considered it a priority.

Minnesota, however, is still interested in connecting to Chicago, and Illinois took the federal stimulus money to start HSR projects on its own rather extensive "Amtrak Illinois" network (beginning with Chicago-St. Louis). With Wisconsin rather dramatically huffing out of the room, the other states were faced with choosing a route that suited them, and they continue to move ahead with planning. (It's admittedly less clear how much interest Illinois would have in an overland route through rural areas -- though it would be cute to see Galena become a rail town again.)

Should Walker get recalled and replaced with a Democrat, I don't think it's impossible that the project could be changed back, but it likely won't be a priority, and the federal funds are not likely to be available anytime soon for a revival -- at least not at the same order of magnitude.

We see small resurgences, fits and starts of progress made here and there, bringing us further. It's hard to remember sometimes how incredibly far, how incredibly quickly, we traveled as a culture in the first two post-war decades.

If you ask me, this is misplaced nostalgia. Those social forces did not arise out of thin air, or our character, or something like that. They can be traced directly to the postwar economic and global position of the United States.
posted by dhartung at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2011


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