A Magic Carpet Ride To New Orleans

by Kevin Burton

   While at the Quiet Knight bar in Chicago, Steve Goodman saw fellow singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie, and asked to be allowed to play a song for him, according to a story on Wikipedia.

   “Guthrie grudgingly agreed, on the condition that if Goodman bought him a beer, Guthrie would listen to him play for as long as it took to drink the beer.” 

   Goodman played “City of New Orleans,” which Guthrie liked enough that he asked to record it. The song was a hit for Guthrie on his 1972 album Hobo’s Lullaby, reaching number four on the Billboard Easy Listening chart and number 18 on the Hot 100,” according to Wikipedia.

   For 50 years I have known City of New Orleans as a rich word picture of a train, a people, a mood, a journey.  What I didn’t know is the song was plucked from reality.

   “Goodman wrote the lyrics on a sketch pad after his wife fell asleep on the Illinois Central train, where they were going to visit his wife’s grandmother,” according to Songfacts. “Goodman wrote about what he saw looking out the windows of the train and playing cards in the club car. Everything in the song actually happened on the ride.”

    “After he returned home, Goodman heard that the train was scheduled to be decommissioned due to lack of passengers. He was encouraged to use this song to save the train. So he retouched the lyrics and released it on his first album in 1971,” according to Songfacts.

   Goodman released his version of the song in 1972 “but it was Guthrie’s cover that same year that popularized the song and brought attention to rail lines that were vanishing across middle America,” wrote Songfacts. “Many people who lived in rural areas relied on the trains to travel.”

   The song is one of my favorites and is the subject of my current rock and roll daydream. 

   If I could be plopped down in the middle of a song, I’d choose “City Of New Orleans.”  And this is one wish that could easily come true.

   The City of New Orleans train lives on, now as part of Amtrak, with daily departures on a 19-hour adventure. 

   “Your journey on the City of New Orleans takes you 900 miles through the heart of our nation’s musical heritage,” crows Amtrak on its website.

  The train goes “from Chicago with its world-class Chicago Symphony Orchestra and still vibrant electric blues scene, to Beale Street in Memphis,” Amtrak writes.

   “Then, travel the history-laden musical crossroads of Mississippi to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.”
   “You’ll be riding in the shadows of giants of American music like Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley.”

   Note to my proofreader/wife: Can we go? Please, please, please! 

   This is the kind of magic carpet ride that would hit the spot right about now. 

   I’m imagining a fly-to-Chicago, train to New Orleans, then tour of New Orleans trip.  This would be even more exciting if we can build in a stop in Memphis for a few days before continuing.  I have no idea how Amtrak tickets work, but I hope to find out. 

   The song mentions two stations, Kankakee and Memphis. Amtrak lists 20 stations served by the City of New Orleans In Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. 

   “In its present form, the southbound City of New Orleans leaves Chicago in mid-evening, traveling overnight through southern Illinois and Kentucky for arrival at breakfast time the following morning in Memphis, lunchtime in Jackson, and mid-afternoon in New Orleans,” according to Wikipedia
   “Northbound trains leave New Orleans in early afternoon, arriving in Jackson in early evening, then traveling through Tennessee and southern Illinois overnight before arriving in Champaign-Urbana at breakfast time the following morning and Chicago just after rush hour.”

   “The original City of New Orleans began in 1947 as part of the Illinois Central Railroad, and was the longest daylight run in the United States,” according to Wikipedia. “The daylight train under that name ran through 1971, when it was moved to an overnight schedule as the Panama Limited. In February 1981, Amtrak restored the City of New Orleans name while retaining the overnight schedule. Amtrak hoped to capitalize on the popularity of the song.”

   “The train operates along a route that has been served in one form or another for over a century,” according to Wikipedia.

   “Because of damage in Mississippi and Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina, Amtrak was forced in late August 2005 to truncate the City of New Orleans at Memphis. Service was first restored as far south as Hammond, Louisiana, and on October 8, 2005, Amtrak resumed service to New Orleans.”

   “In December 2005 Guthrie, led a fundraiser aboard the City of New Orleans and at several stops along the train’s route to help in the hurricane recovery efforts.”

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