It is "the best damn train song ever written," according to (depending on your source) Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson (who discovered it and composer Steve Goodman), or John Prine - or all three, though my money is on Goodman's close friend and collaborator Prine. Whoever originated it, he was making a sweepingly significant statement, given the centrality of the train to the history of the U.S. and the plethora of great songs engendered by it, songs like "The Wreck of Old 97" and its nephew "Charlie on the MTA," and like "The Ballad of Casey Jones," and "Pat Works on the Railway" and "Drill Ye Tarriers" and "John Henry" and "The Wabash Cannonball" and "Freight Train" and scores, even hundreds more. It may have been the automobile industry that turned America from a middling power to the industrial giant of the world through most of the 20th century - but that would never have happened had there not first been what we today call an infrastructure of steel rails that made large scale - gigantic scale, really, - manufacturing in this country possible, even inevitable.
It was the train that superseded the barge and the paddle-wheel steamer as the primary vehicle of American commerce because the latter were limited to where there were navigable waterways but the former could and did go anywhere and everywhere. The railroads did not simply connect places where people were; they led the way to places for people to go. And go they did, by the millions, especially at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. That's why every one of us learned about the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869 completing the transcontinental railroad, an epic achievement that marked the first time in human history that a fast, reliable, and safe means of transport breached a continental expanse and linked the two largest oceans in the world.
Freight was always at the core of the railroad business, but the great rail companies of the day took such pride in the quality of their passenger service that they dared to name their trains in much the same way as ocean liners were named - and those names conjured up the romance of far places in the minds of American children for more than a century. The Empire Builder. The Super Chief. The Sunset Limited. The Zephyr. The Silver Meteor. The Twentieth Century Limited. Who of us did not have a model train set, likely with an engine that recreated one of those fabled trains?
And for nearly a hundred years, the very center of rail service in the U.S. was my home town of Chicago. It was also Steve Goodman's birthplace in 1948 (2 years before me), and you just couldn't live in the Second City in the '50s without your life defined by trains of all sorts, from freight and long-haul passenger trains to the electric inter-urbans to the subways to the commuter trains to the legendary El (for those non-Chicagoans, the elevated electric commuter trains whose track configuration created the Loop, which is downtown Chicago.) Trains were in our DNA as surely as autos were for '50s and '60s teens in LA.
So it is no surprise to me at all that the best damn train song ever written was brought into being by a Chicagoan, and that is what Steve Goodman was, dyed in the wool and to the marrow of his bones. Who else but an unreconstructed Chicagoan could have written such wonderful songs as "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" or "Lincoln Park Pirates' or "Daley's Gone, One More Round" - or "The City of New Orleans"?
Goodman penned CONY likely in early 1970, when plans were announced to end independent passenger rail service in the U.S. and amalgamate the most profitable routes into AMTRAK - which at first de-commissioned many of the named trains in an effort to establish its own "brand." The success of Arlo Guthrie's version of Goodman's song, however, changed some corporate minds, and AMTRAK in 1974 resurrected the name a mere three years after it had dropped it. The names were good for business, and a number of the other classic monnikers were resurrected as well.
Goodman's song is a poetic eulogy to the passing of an era, and bringing back the name did not bring back that era. My guess is that Goodman knew that more than a name was evanescing into the mists of history; it was a way of life, or perhaps more properly stated, an attitude toward life. Travel by train seemed lightning-quick in 1910, but air travel supplanted it over the next fifty years for speed and initially for convenience. Rail travel became leisurely, relaxed, and at times elegant in a country and era that had little use for any of those. And as passenger patronage dropped, the old grand dames of the named trains fell into deep disrepair. I took the CONY any number of times in the mid- and late 60's to visit friends at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a stop on the route, and the cars had gone to seed: torn upholstery, dirty decks, stinking restrooms, third-rate and over-priced food.
But Goodman's artistic eye saw past all that and into the heart of the romance that the train and its name engendered: his City of New Orleans is still the proud queen of the heartland, at least in his imagination. While I know that most people respond most enthusiastically to Arlo Guthrie's hit version, for my money no one else ever did the song as well as Goodman himself - here from England in 1972:
I wish every cover artist had heeded Goodman's original concept. Listen. It's Kank -akee, folks, not Kan - kakee. The rhythm of the song is that of drive wheels pounding at full speed through the open countryside. In his original lyric (and clearly he is amending it as he goes along here) it was "passing trains that have no names" - those less regal and distinguished than CONY.
But what is, is - and Arlo Guthrie's arrangement is the one that most people know. And a fine arrangement it is - but it's not the way Goodman imagined it. Arlo in 1978:
Guthrie gives the tune a bit of country swing, and he sings it movingly - but it doesn't sound or feel much like a train at all.
John Denver stayed closer to the song's roots and Goodman's musical concept, though like much of JD's early stuff, this is maybe a bit over-produced:
You undoubtedly noticed that Denver substantially rewrote the melody and lyric in verses two and three - one of the more disreputable things he ever did musically, partly because he claimed partial copyright for a song not of his own making, which was also the case with "Country Roads, West Virginia." I wonder why Goodman let him get away with this. I'd guess that it was because Goodman was struggling still and Denver had already had a Top 10 hit and was beginning his stratospheric ascent into superstardom. But I also wonder if Denver ever realized how badly he messed up the arrangement and how completely he missed the inherent melancholy of the song.
Willie Nelson won a country Grammy for his 1984 recording (at which ceremony a Grammy was also awarded posthumously to Goodman, who had died earlier that year at age 36 from leukemia):
Nelson is a great singer and interpreter, but this quasi-country blues approach leaves me unmoved, at least to the extent that I can ever listen to this song and not be moved.
I think that New Orleans R&B legend Alan Toussaint is more successful at translating Guthrie's musical setting into his own idiom:
There's a catch in Toussaint's voice on the chorus that gives his rendition just enough of an edge of sadness to keep it in Goodman's conceptual ballpark.
Country legend Hank Snow goes full-on cheery here:
I like the way Snow preserves the speed and something of the rhythm of a passenger train rumbling through the night that Goodman invested into the song. He still sounds too happy for my taste.
The song was tailor-made for a pop-folk group like the Kingston Trio, who gave us a tightly-harmonized and thoroughly professional take on the song in their 1976 Live In Reno album:
Lead vocal here is by the late Roger Gambill, and the banjo is by Bill Zorn, who rejoined the group in 2004 after a 28-year hiatus. This version has the right rhythm, even if the gusto of the vocal overwhelms the lyric a bit at points. It's still a fine performance.
I might be less inclined to find fault with the versions above did I not have a superior interpretation to close with...but I do. Johnny Cash, solo acoustic, the only accompaniment being Cash on rhythm guitar, from 1984:
That would be my favorite version after Goodman's himself. Cash knows what to do with the lyric, and if he is simplifying the chords somewhat, he is simultaneously making the song his own while recognizing what the composer's intent was.
Steve Goodman wrote a song that lamented, as noted, the passing of an era. But the era of the song's composition has also passed, a distant memory like the America that you could greet in the morning that now is no more. I am reminded by this song of the opening scenes of the movie Rudy, which I love not simply because I went to Notre Dame but even more because it evokes the gritty, snowy, industrial Midwest of my boyhood - the same industrial Midwest that nurtured Steve Goodman and the great trains that rolled out of the great stations, many of which are today abandoned and silent. All is changed, changed utterly, as Yeats wrote. While I have little doubt that something golden and wonderful will ultimately arise from the ashes of the fires we lit that destroyed our industries and our cities of what is now most accurately termed the Rust Belt, it is too much to expect that some of us will not mourn what has been lost. Steve Goodman did, though he didn't live to see how the disappearance of this train simply presaged the disappearance of so much more. He has, however, left us with a great and evocative song that reminds us of that loss.