Arlo Guthrie is a prolific songwriter (and the son of maybe the more prolific songwriters), but he didn't write this one. "City Of New Orleans" was composed by the Chicago singer-songwriter Steve Goodman in 1970.
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. 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.
Steve Goodman released his version as a single in 1972, but it was Arlo Guthrie's cover that same year that popularized the song and brought attention to rail lines that were vanishing across middle America. Many people who lived in rural areas relied on them to travel.
Steve Goodman died on September 20, 1984 at the age of 36 after a long battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. That same year, Willie Nelson covered this song and made it the title track of his album. Nelson's version was a #1 Country hit and won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song, which is a songwriting category and thus an honor bestowed posthumously to Goodman.
Nelson was one of many high-profile fans of Goodman, who released 11 albums in his lifetime. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1969, Goodman underwent chemotherapy and his cancer stayed in remission for 13 years thanks to an unpleasant regimen of drugs and treatment. When his cancer returned, Goodman continued performing and stayed in high spirits. This song, written after he was diagnosed, is a great example of his positive outlook, demonstrating a mindfulness and vitality of someone who appreciates the time he has left.
Arlo is the son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie. This was Arlo's only chart hit, although he is well known for his Thanksgiving day classic, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree
The jubilant chorus line, "Good morning America, how are ya?" became a cultural touchstone in the United States. When ABC launched a new morning show in 1975, they named it: Good Morning America.
Guthrie and Goodman's versions have slightly different lyrics:
Goodman: "Passing towns that have no name."
Guthrie: "Passing trains..."
Goodman: "Sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their father's magic carpet made of steam."
Guthrie: "... made of steel."
Goodman: "...the rhythm of the rails is all they dream"
Guthrie: "...all they feel"
(thanks, Victor - Portland, OR)
Goodman's version was recorded at Quadraphonic Sound Studios in Nashville, and produced by Kris Kristofferson and Norbert Putnam.
Goodman performed this song on the popular British variety show The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972. Dolly Parton sang it in 1976 on her show Dolly, and the song has popped up in a few movies and TV shows, including B.J. and the Bear (1979), The A-Team (1985) and Texasville (1990 - Willie Nelson version.