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 full of old black men
And the graveyards of rusted automobiles.
In 1976 Goodman told UK writer John Tobler, in an interview that later appeared in a fanzine called Omaha Rainbow, that “City of New Orleans” was one of the first songs he ever wrote. “I wasn’t really writing that much before ’69,” he said. “Some of the first ones happened to be good enough to stick; City of New Orleans was the fifth or sixth song I ever wrote and it was an accident, it just tumbled out when I was riding the train … We were going to see [Goodman’s wife] Nancy’s grandmother, may she rest, she was 90-something living in a retirement home in Southern Illinois … Nancy fell asleep, and I looked out of the window and wrote down everything I saw. The whole thing took 45 minutes, I don’t want to make it out as anything more than it was.”
Willie Nelson recorded the song in 1984, and in 1985 Goodman won a posthumous Grammy award for Best Country Song as the writer; he had died a few months earlier of the leukemia he was diagnosed with during his college years. He wrote and sang memorable songs for well over a decade even though he was often sick. He also was a huge fan of his hometown baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, and wrote the team’s unofficial victory song, “Go, Cubs, Go!”, which saw action on two different Billboard charts when the Cubs won the 2016 World Series.