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" >>
Suggestion credit: 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.
The Doobie Brothers got on board the year after this was released with "Long Train Runnin'," which also mentions the Illinois Central:
Well the Illinois Central And the Southern Central Freight...
Pierre Cantin from OttawaIn 1972, French singer, JOE DASSIN (1938-1980) (born in New York, the son of the film director Jules Dassin) and Hélène Ségara used the music of "City of New Orleans" to tell the story of two lovers breaking up: "Salut, les amoureux."
Jennifur Sun from RamonaFirst heard this song by Johnny Cash on a special about trains (I believe it was) on TV. Love both versions.
Jay from MassachusettsBackup singers were Clydie King and Venetta Fields.
Doug from MaineI had heard somewhere that Amtrak wanted to rename the train, but public opinion either kept that from happening, or caused it to be changed back, probably because of the song. But Wikipedia says the changes happened in 1971 (P.L.) and 1981 (CoNL). For Karl in Akron: Yes, on 03/15/1999 the southbound CoNL (Train 59) was involved in a grade crossing collision with a semi truck loaded with steel, in Bourbonnais, IL. Most of the train derailed, and eleven people were killed. Bad stuff, but in terms of casualties per passenger-miles, rail travel is pretty safe. I haven't played the song in a long time, but the guitar chords for the Arlo Guthrie version are pretty easy, so this page (and a mention of Steve Goodman on a guitar forum I use) is getting me back to re-learning it.
Van Hayhow from Attleboro, MaFor those that asked, Amtrak started operation in 1971 after Steve Goodman wrote the song. He was writing about the train before the government took over passenger rail service.
Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn July 23rd 1972, "The City of New Orleans" by Arlo Guthrie entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #86; and on October 22nd, 1972 it peaked at #18 (for 1 week) and spent 16 weeks on the Top 100... On October 28th, 1984 Willie Nelson's covered version reached #1 (for 1 week) on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart... Arlo Guthrie had one other Top 100 record, "Alice's Rock and Roll Restaurant", it stayed on the chart for two weeks, peaking at #97... Mr. Guthrie celebrated his 67th birthday thirteen days ago on July 10th, 2014.
David from Boerne, TxIt's simply one of the greatest pop songs ever written. Now that I've seen 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, I am curious as to who are the "colored girls" singing the great backup harmonies on the Arlo record?
Molly from Bellevue, WaI knew Steve Goodman and he was a great guy, great Chicagoan and great Cubs fan! What a wonderful song. As a kid I road the City of New Orleans to Nawlins from Chicago or Chicago to Carbondale. It was a time when a little kid could travel 900 miles alone safely on the train. The song gets the rhythm of the train perfectly.
Tiger-heli from Georgia, GaI heard this on the radio years ago (late 1970's) and always liked it.
I was trying to figure out what the radio version was, but none of the ones I find seem quite the way I remember it. I'm guessing it was most likely Arlo Guthrie's. Woody Nelson does a good job capturing the "train" feeling to the song. John Prine (Randy Scruggs), I think actually does the best job on the main vocals, but the background vocals are a bit overbearing, and I don't think it was the one played on the radio.
Jayne from Mekoryuk, AkHi, I'm a student in Alaska. In my class, we've been comparing and contrasting Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" and Quincy Troupe's "In Texas Grass". Could there have been some plagiarism or copyright infringement between these poems?
Esskayess from Dallas, TxI liked Goodman's version better. And so the Apollo astronauts that it woke up.
John from Amite, LaIn August of '72, I crashed my motorcycle while jumping 23 cars near Baton Rouge. I was comatose for 34 days thereafter. I "came to" in the New Orleans VA Hospital just as this song started on the radio. About "half-way" through my hospital stint, I was transferred to Memphis, Tennessee's VA. This song RESONATES with me. "Fat Rat"
Terry from Canberr, AustraliaHi - Terry here. I'm from central Illinois. Both of my grandfathers worked on the Illinois Central. One of my grandfathers was a brakeman. He fell between the cars and got his legs cut off. My other grandfather DROVE THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS. He's the one who taught me (through my dad) to play blues harp. I like your site. Good Luck. Terry.
Frank from Tempe, AzI went to the University of Illinois, and I often rode the Illinois Central from the 12th Street Station in Chicago down to Champaign. If it was after a holiday, they usually had a special train that only went as far as Carbondale, and it was filled with students from the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University. But sometimes I actually rode on the City of New Orleans. Whenever I hear this song I think of those wonderful experiences. The line "The conductor sings his song again, the passengers will please refrain . . ." reminds me of the conductor coming by as the train was pulling into a station. He would say "The passengers will please refrain from using the restroom while the train is in the station." :)
Ed from Ida Grove, IaOne morning my clock radio came one right in the middle of this song "Good Morning America How are Ya..." Great way to wake up. Surprised some morning radio stations don't use that line.
Marlena from Topeka, KsWillie Nelson released his version on the Country Music Charts on 8-18-84. A month before Steve died. Trains are magical.Everyone should ride one at least once in their life!
Diane from Baytown, TxI really liked Arlo's version the first time I ever heard the song, years and years ago. His version is light and ethereal. However, Willie Nelson's verson, with the powerful music backed by that astonishing harmonica, cannot be beat. My grandfather, btw, was a roundhouse foreman back in the 1920s. I still have his railroad watch.
Wayne from Portage, InHelp..... didn't Ronny Cox record the City Of New Orleans too? Seems to me he did and it was very smooth flowing.
Woody from New York, NcIn my research of the song I discovered Sammi Smith's recording, which is excellent, by the way. She does it at a slightly slower tempo than the other recordings I have heard, and I've found that the song works for me best at the temmpo. -- Woody, New York City
Budoshi from Sandnessjøen, NorwayBoth Willie Nelsons version and Arlo Guthries original are oustanding...
Larry from Palmeto, Fllove this song have taken many train rides. it truly was americana at its best. we've lost something that'll never be recovered. one of the best songs ever.
Alph from Bridgeport, CtI had the supreme fortune of attending the Mariposa Festival in Toronto 1974 and 75. Steve Goodman was a headliner along with John Prine. We could sit on the lawn right under his feet as he played in various workshops and concerts. David Amram was another multi-talented player from that era. In the next life I hope to run into Mr Goodman, quite the raconteur, singer and a pretty good guitar picker. Check out the live sessions 'Easter' recorded in NYC for Steve at his informal best. Oh and Arlo is no slouch either, but Steve never got the widespread acknowledgements Arlo did.
Joe from Freshwater, Pb, NlJust about everything's been said here about one of the best songs ( lyrics, melody, and feeling ) ever written ... so I'll just echo Wyatt from North Carolina. Prine's is definitely the ( thee ) version. This version cause the eyes to well up. ?? Is it Steve Goodman who sings with John on The City of New Orleans? I have doubts. I hope I'm wrong. Joe - Newfoundland, Canada
Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesOne of my old radio co-workers says, "City of New Orleans is one of the great melodies of the 20th century. Arlo Guthrie wrapped his career around it."
Brad from Barry, TxOne of the my brother's favorite songs. I remembered he recorded it from a Waco, Texas Oldies radio station on a cassette tape.
Niles from Belpre, Oha song that never gets old
Roger from Albuquerque, NmGoodman probably got the phrase "Good Morning America" from the poem and book of the same name by Carl Sandburg, written in 1928. Sandburg's poetry was populist and deeply rooted in the American experience. [But not too populist...Sandburg read the poem "Good Morning America" as the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard University in 1928.] If you like the lyrics of the song, and haven't read Sandburg's poetry, you should check it out...a number of his poems are online. The ABC show is probably named for Sandburg's poem and book, as well as the lyric of Goodman's song.
Steve from Collierville, TnSteve Goodman was such a huge Chicago Cub fan that when he dies his ashes were buried under home plate at Wrigley Field. Talk about fan loyalty!!!
Joel from Wheeling, WvGood song. Other artists who have sung this have been Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and even Bob Dylan. The original is still tops tho.
Patrick from Omaha, NeI can't remember if it was 1984 or 1985, but I had the pleasure of seeing Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie together (no back up musicians, either) in a concert in Lincoln, NE, at the Nebraska State Fair. The whole concert was excellent, but the highlight came probably two-thirds of the way through. Sitting at the piano, Arlo started telling a story about the upcoming song. (Hey, it's Arlo Guthrie; there's always a few stories going on!) After doing a show at a bar one night, "This kid comes up to me and says, 'Mr. Guthrie, I know you're tired. But I have some songs I think you'll really like and I'd like to play them for you.' He was right... I was tired. But he seemed sincere, so I said, 'Kid, here's what's going to happen. You're going to buy me a beer. And as long as I'm sitting here drinking that beer, I'll listen to what you have to play.' Friends, that was one of the longest, most enjoyable beers I ever had. He became a good friend, and sadly he passed away recently. So I'd like to dedicate this next song to my friend Steve Goodman." I was a teenager who had never heard the name Steve Goodman before that night. But when Arlo started playing "City of New Orleans," that name became burned in my memory with the story behind the song. "City" was oenof my favorite songs growing up. And with all respect to Judy Collins, Willie Nelson and others who have recorded it, I still feel Arlo's version is the best
Susan from Westchestertonfieldville, VaJudy Collins does a version..pretty good,not as good as Arlo's
Wyatt from Wilmington, NcIf you want to experience this song as it was written, forget Arlo and listen to Steve Goodman and John Prine's version. They alternate verses and the music is a symphony to a train. I used to ride trains from Illinois to Ohio and back on the Wabash. I should have taken the City of New Orleans. Wyatt
Karl from Akron, , Oh Would someone PLEASE correct me if I'm wrong. But I recall hearing on the radio a few years back that the Amtrack train refeered to as "The City of New Orleans" was involved in a very serious train derailment.. Please feel to correct me if I'm mistaken. If this is true, is this the same train mentioned in the song?
Mark from Byrdstown, TnGreat song written by Steve Goodman who also wrote "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" that was recorded by David Allan Coe.
Willie Nelson also does a great version of this song.Arlo wrote some good songs on his own but this song by Goodman is almost something that Arlo's dad Woody could have wrote.
Jerry from Kankakee, IlBeing from Kankakee (County) this song means a lot to me, no matter who sings it, but I do like Arlo's best. I grew up a mile from the junkyard mentioned in it, and for what it's worth the junkyard is in an area called Otto. The sad (ironic?) part is that the City of New Orleans derailed in Kankakee County back in the 90's.
Greg from Grand Rapids, MiI love getting requests to sing this song. (I am a singing piano player) It brings back memories I have as a kid.... songs that formed musical sensibilities and struck a chord--- no pun intended.
Leanna from Newington, CtI feel this song on so many levels. The Illinois Central used to pass through the town where I grew up (now it passes by), and Kankakee and the Mississippi weren't that far away. Train travel didn't cost double every other mode of transportation, and it went everywhere. Whether I hear it or sing it, this song goes right to my heart.
Mike from New Orleans, LaI love what peole do with open minds..its make me feel soo good inside
Mike from Chicago, IlJohn Prine recorded it on Randy Scruggs album Crown of Jewels (an excellent recording and album). The two were great friends, Steve can be heard on Prine's albums as a guitarist and a backup vocalist. IF one looks at the cover of Goodman's Somebody Else's troubles album, they will find John Prine, and Jimmy Buffet (called Marvin Gardens). Personally, i think that Steve's version is the best, especially when it was just a duo with him and Jethro Burns on Mandolin.
Rob Dawalt from Marion, InMy memory of this song is that I went to see a Cubs game in the mid 80's with a couple of older friends, Dick Sisson and Phil Cassidy, both are now dead. It was late, we had been to the ball game and we walked back to our hotel. We went by a neat looking Italian Restaurant and decided to go in and grab a bite to eat. It was the weekend and they had a small band. They were taking requests. We requested, "City of New Orleans." They struggled through it a couple times and after a few tries they had it mastered pretty well. We sat there for hours, "putting money in the jar." What a great MEMORY.
Jim from Memphis, TnThis song basically tells the true tale of how our railroads in America that were the backbone of America are slowly dwindling away. You see this everyday when Old Stations are torn down and lines are torn up to make way for housing projects. This song is Americana at it's best and Arlo Guthrie's version is simply the best. Everything that happens in the song really happens if you take the ride. There's a guy with his dog in Mississippi that waves at the train everyday as it passes by. I don't know what he'll do once the City of New Orleans is only a memory too!
Jay from Brooklyn, NyI love this song. It evokes the excitement and romance and adventure of travel. The subways here in New York also create a feeling of adventure, but not in quite the same spirit of the word.
David from Clinton, NyI first heard the Arlo Guthrie version of this song on the radio. I had heard that Steve Goodman was the true composer of the song.
To this day I have never taken a train trip but this song makes me feel as if I'm already there on that train. What I like about the Arlo Guthrie version is that you feel like you're actually on that train. I also feel that this song paints a picture of a time gone by.
Larry from Newton, NcI have never ridden on a train but this song definitely evokes the romance of such an adventure. The line about "mothers with their babes asleep" and "feel the wheels rumbling 'neath the floor" make me feel as though I HAVE been on a train. It sounds so peaceful and soothing. And such a far cry from traveling by any other conveyance in this day of speed and hurrying. It's a real shame that music and lyrics like this are no longer being written. I'm glad I was born at the point in time that I was because I was so fortunate to have grown up on brilliant rock and roll such as this.
Rjf from Palm Harbor, FlA quietly beautiful song about life in America. In my opinion a more patriotic song than more brash songs like "God Bless The USA".May the people who strive every few years to have AMTRAK dismantled be forced to spend their eternal afterlife listening to this song.
Terrance from London, CanadaActually Johnny Cash *did* record this song as well, in 1973 on his album "JOHNNY CASH AND HIS WOMAN" Columbia KC-32443, one year after Arlo's version came out.
Jc from San Francisco, CaThis song didn't "come home" to me until I was driving up Highway 57 through Kankakee about 20 years ago and saw that auto junkyard. Suddenly the vision and the place came together, and I "got" what the song was about! I've loved it ever since. My friends play an old board game called Rail Baron, in which the Illinois Central plays a part.
Jordan from WvNow the "Ruins of New Orleans" - good song though.
Joyce from Houston, TxI fell in love with this song way back in 1972. My favourite line in the song is "and the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers, ride their father's magic carpets made of steel". While on a trip to Arizona via Amtrak Railway to visit my brother, I told the train workers that no matter that people now call them train attendants, to me they will always be Pullman porters, a most honorable profession. And now with all the devastation that has befallen the city of New Orleans, I want to dedicate this son to them. May they prevail. May they rise again to become again the great people and city that they are.
Shari from Venice, FlI have always loved this song. I really like the line "And the sons of pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their father's magic carpets made of steel." The imagery of that just blows me away. I teach middle school and occasionally put aside traditional learning for "music appreciation day...MY music" and encourage the students to listen to hits such as these and discover which ones they like. They always enjoy Willie Nelson's version of this song...especially the sound effects. Just a tremendous song.
Geno from Peoria, IlWith railroad in my family and my wifes, and hearing it on AM radio when My dad got up early for work and being from "Illinois central" I break into this song every once in awhile! 30+ years old but its always great to hear. Americana!
Shannon from Ventura, CaTook a train trip, when it was still the Union Pacific, from California to Omaha one year with my family for Christmas. Economy all the way -no sleeper cars - we slept sitting up. It was one of the great experiences of my life and I saw many of the things in this song. To me it's more of a hymn. It breaks my heart and makes me happy at that the same time, each time I hear it.
Alberto from Piacenza, Italyi listened to The City of New Orleans performed by John Denver and by Arlo Guthrie, the second is one of the best songs i've ever heard, the first it's quite bad because in my opinion misunderstands the original inspiration of the author
Rob from Hollywood, FlFunny. My copy was acquired on Napster and as many times as I've heard it I usually drift into this memory.
I'm 8 (the same age as my son is now) and riding in a car on my way to my grandparents place in WV (early 70s). I'm watching the hills roll by in the misty, early morning dawn riding along Appalachian 2 lane blacktop listening to this haunting song. Strange clarity; it affected me then as it affects me now.
My lifestyle and career seem to conflict with this song but this is what I'll have 'em play when they finally plant me six feet under.
Joshua from Butler, Pai just got into arlo what a great ride on "the city of new orleans".
Hal from Passaic, NjA very meaningful song for me. It really puts me there. I don't know what it sounds like sung by others, but it's hard to imagine that it could be any better.
Rich from Elkins, WvJohnny Cash (well known for his train songs)sang this on an episode of HEE HAW..but even he couldn't out do the job that Arlo Guthrie did.
Dennis from Ray, NdI love this song, it is absolutely haunting. Brings back wonderful memories of my first slow dance at a junior high dance in 1973, we must have played City of New Orleans 10 times that night.
Rich from Elkins, WvSteve Goodman the writer of this song also wrote 'YOU NEVER EVEN CALL ME BY MY NAME' which was sung by David Allen Coe. "City of New Orleans is a classic train song for the ages" said Johnny Cash ,who had the opportunity to record this first but passed on it with some later regret.
Jim from San Diego, CaSammi Smith also recorded a terrific version of City of New Orleans -- highly recommended. It's on The Best of Sammi Smith (Varese Sarabande).
Mike from Mountlake Terrace, WaOne of the very first songs that I really fell in love with. Yeah I guess you could call it my first love. :-)
I remember we were living in Arvada (Suburb of Denver) Colorado, I was 9, I slipped downstairs, put the head phones on and the radio station was playing Uncle Albert by McCartney, then - wham, up came this song "City of New Orleans. I would rock in the chair to the beat, imagining I was on the train.