When people think of standards they might think of the Great American Songbook, or one of the classic country songs by Hank Williams, or even McCartney’s “Yesterday.” But while many of those are standards because they relate to the universal human condition, other songs become standards for different reasons. One of those songs is “City of New Orleans,” Steve Goodman’s masterwork of life in rural America from the vantage point of a train car.
The song was recorded by Goodman on his eponymous debut album in 1971 on the small Buddah label, home to acts like the 1910 Fruitgum Company and Captain Beefheart. The record still holds up today, thanks to Goodman’s honest, regular-Midwestern-guy singing style, but it didn’t do well at radio or sell much at the time. A year or so later, though, Arlo Guthrie cut “City of New Orleans” and his version became a hit single, giving Goodman’s reputation as a writer and an artist a major boost.
The song opens with a line that pretty much leaves the first-time listener hanging, Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans. What does that mean, anyway. The only way to find out is to keep listening, and it’s either a great device to draw the listener in or a horrible way to start a song, depending on your point of view. In a prime example of writing from observation in real time, Goodman painted a Norman Rockwell-meets-John Steinbeck picture of the predominantly rural areas that trains pass through, with lines like:
They’re all out on a southbound odyssey the train pulls out of Kankakee Rolls past houses, farms and fields Passin' towns that have no name, freight yards... Sign In to Keep Reading