New Orleans, Louisiana

City of New Orleans by Arlo Guthrie

Play Video
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor Read full Lyrics
If Wes Craven ever gets tired of endlessly knocking off Freddy Kruger, maybe he could make a psycho stalker out of the '70s. This would be some entity represented on screen as a swirly energy thing, like one of those anomalies in Star Trek, only it's the living personification of the '70s. It waits lurking in dark alleys until a victim wanders too close, then it leaps into their heads. Suddenly, the victim is overwhelmed with the desire to make gods-eyes out of popsicle sticks and yarn, adopt a pet rock, or comb the beach for a piece of driftwood which, when covered in shellac and fitted with a kit, will make a charming wall clock. Their pants' cuffs balloon out into bell-bottoms, their shoes thicken to platform height, and, screaming in terror, a polyester rash consumes them alive.

The Illinois Central train in 2010<br>Photo: vxla via <a href="" target="_blank">Flickr</a>, CC 2.0The Illinois Central train in 2010
Photo: vxla via Flickr, CC 2.0
See, it could work. And it's sequel-bait. Anyway, "City of New Orleans" is a sunny ballad about a train of the same name, most memorably performed by Arlo Guthrie in 1972. The song is filled with love, reassuring America that it would survive the dark time which lay ahead. It's a sweet song filled with comforting, snugly images, and it's one of the few times anybody actually cared enough to greet the nation itself with a "good morning" and ask how it is. These days, that's something your local neighborhood barista is barely willing to do as she slings your cappuccino venti at you. From the mothers rocking to the gentle beat to the conductor singing his song, it all makes you want to be on that train right now, watching America roll by without a care in the world. Where did our national pride go, anyway?

In the 21st century, you, of course, can't say "New Orleans" without free-associating Hurricane Katrina. And indeed, this very song was performed by Jimmy Buffett at Wrigley Field in September, 2005, in tribute to Hurricane Katrina victims. But before New Orleans became the poster child for cities laid waste by acts of nature, it was a beautiful, vibrant city of wonder and delight, which has been the subject and setting for song, film, novel, and TV series.

The thing with New Orleans is culture. You can't really point to Las Vegas or Los Angeles or New York City and say that is has culture - character, yes, attitude, yes, culture, no. New Orleans has culture coming out its ears. People there talk different, act different, and have a different view on things. It has the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, boutiques and quaint antique shops, Mardi Gras, voodoo, the birthplace of jazz, Creole and Cajun cuisine, and an ethnic mix that gives it a flavor as unmistakable as a plate of crawfish with red beans and rice.

You might make the mistake of thinking that "City of New Orleans" uses a metaphor of a train while talking about the city, perhaps approaching it by following the Mississippi. The actual City of New Orleans is a nightly passenger train run by Amtrak, which travels 926 miles from Chicago, Illinois, to New Orleans, Louisiana, and back again. Amtrak bought the line in 1971 and changed it to the Panama Limited; the popularity of this song caused them to change it back by 1974. It has a long, storied history filled with all kinds of interesting drama, including an accident and a derailment, but continues today, mainly because people just love it.

But you've heard about the news with railroads, still going on today, right? The City of New Orleans may yet one day succumb to "the disappearing railroad blues," a disease which strikes any country that forgets to include beauty and culture on its Bill of Rights.

Pete Trbovich
August 14, 2010
City of New Orleans Songfacts
Browse all Songplaces

Comments: 3

  • Chris from Cape-coral FlaWhen my mom had me as a baby she picked this song The City of New Orleans as my babtized song back in 1972 because in one of the verses it says "babies rock to the gentle beat."
  • Richard Burin from Elgin, Il.Employed by the Illinois Central RR from 1959-1976. Qualified as a engineer 1964. Trainmaster of the Tennessee DIvision at Memphis, 1969-1971. Rode the cab of the "City"now and than. Took the throttle occasionally. It's possible ( but not provable ) that the line in the song that goes 'the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers is about my oldest son Eric and myself.
  • Donna from Algiers,la.I love the song, I have rode on The City of New Orleans with my ma-ma when I was a kid so I can relate to the song. Riding on The City of New Orleans is just like the song says it is and I dearly miss it.
see more comments