Saturday morning I left a little more earlier than I needed to for an appointment. I used the time to drive through downtown Birmingham. There are several bridges that cross a series of railroad tracks which divides the city into North and South sections. I parked on one of the bridges where I could view the railroad tracks.
The railroad played a huge part in the history of Birmingham. Residents not only used it for travel, the plants and foundries depended on the railroad for transportation of supplies and delivery of goods. However, like other places across America, this dependency decreased drastically as interstate travel became easier during the late sixties and early seventies.
Although the train they call The City of New Orleans was never routed through Birmingham I still think of Steve Goodman’s song every time I see this area. I’m amazed how people can sit down and write a song and forty years later it still touches the hearts of people today. Better yet the things in the song actually happened.
Steve and his wife were traveling to visit his wife’s grandmother. After his wife fell asleep, Steve picked up a sketch pad and as he looked out his window began writing the lyrics.
Riding on the City of New Orleans, Illinois Central Monday morning rail. Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders, three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail. All along the southbound odyssey the train pulls out at Kankakee rolls along past houses, farms and fields. Passing trains that have no names, freight yards full of old black men and the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.
Then he got up and walked back to the club car where he sees several men playing cards.
Dealing card games with the old men in the club car. Penny a point ain’t no one keeping score. Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle feel the wheels rumbling beneath the floor. And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel. Mothers with their babes asleep are rocking to the gentle beat and the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.
Returning home Steve heard about the train being scheduled for decommission and finished the song. The following year Goodman met Arlo Guthrie where he was performing at a bar in Chicago. He convinced Guthrie to listen to his song by buying him a beer. Guthrie who was uninterested and wanted nothing more than to go home, agreed to listen until he finished the beer. Although Guthrie had several well-known songs this became his only charted hit and his signature song. Sadly Goodman died in 1984 at the age of only 36, after a long battle with leukemia.
Listen to City of New Orleans Arlo Guthrie on YouTube.