Arlo Guthrie isn’t exactly what you would call a “hit machine” when it comes to the recording industry. Sure, there was Alice’s Restaurant and maybe a couple of others that don’t come to mind right now but this one, The "City of New Orleans", was a “hit” back in 1972. It’s one of those tunes that even though I seldom hear it played anymore, just jumps into my head for no particular reason. The line “Good mornin’ America, how are ya?” is one of my favorites. I just wish America, in answer to that question, would reply “just fine” a little more often.


It hurts just to say it. I was all of fourteen then and was probably making my way though my first stereo system replete with the eight track cassette player. Man, what a big deal that was. My friends and me would pack our pimply asses into my room and start going through what vinyl I had and what they brought over. Inevitably, the volume would steadily increase until my father would shout from the front of the house to “TURN THAT SHIT DOWN.”

Some of my friends were real “glam rock” kinda guys. They dug the explosions and the fireworks and the over the top costumes. Maybe they were like that because they knew in the back of their heads that it was something they could never be. Most of us came from straight laced Republican families and “celebrating our differences” wasn’t exactly part of the vocabulary back then.

As for me, I stuck to flannel.

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.

1972, all of fourteen and the urge to wander has already set in. Besides a couple of excursions into Queens or Manhattan, I don’t think I’d been outside of the borough of Brooklyn and the confines of Bay Ridge all that much. Maybe there was that one time a few years earlier when we packed our bags and went to visit some people on Long Island in order to pay our last respects to someone who had died but outside of that, there was nothing. The world outside remained somewhat of a mystery.

My family wasn’t into “vacations”.

All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

What imagery those lyrics put in my head way back then.

Oh yeah, I could look at pictures in magazines like Life and Look or watch the occasional National Geographic special that came on television every blue moon or so. I could even tune into Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on Sunday nights and watch Marlin Perkins talk into the microphone while Stan wrestled anaconda’s or alligators or some shit but that stuff wasn’t real in my mind. It was too far off in the distance, unreachable except only to a chosen few.

Crusty black dudes and rusted out cars sitting in junkyards all across America painted me a much better picture. Yeah, now that was something that seemed real.

Good mornin’ America how are ya?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

I guess when you’re fourteen, you really don’t know shit. You might think you do but the rest of the world, except of course for you, knows better. Most folks will see you for what you are, a bratty, still wet behind the ears know it all who doesn’t have enough sense to come in from the cold.

Yeah, fourteen was stubborn time. But you know what, it was also a good one. It was a time to open your eyes and maybe expand your horizons a bit. You know, take a look around outside of your safe little world and see how the other half lives. A little peek outside the womb to see what might lay in store is a good thing.

Dealin' card games with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score.
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath 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 rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

What a picture those words paint.

Maybe it was about the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl days when people had to travel from city to city and town to town just to find a job that lasted long enough to put some food on the table. Then it was off again, another morning, another town.

I wonder how the people of New Orleans who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina will cope. The only time I went to sleep not knowing where I was going to wake up or how long I was going to be there was in the service of Uncle Sam. That was different though, I was trained for it. I wasn’t an infant or elderly or infirmed. I was eighteen and in my prime, it was an adventure back then. It wouldn’t be now.

Good mornin’ America how are ya?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

I haven’t even heard anybody come out with any credible numbers on what the death toll from Hurricane Katrina might be. I think our public officials are scared to even offer up such an estimate. It’ll pale in comparison to the number of folks left sick, homeless and out of work anyway. The long term effect of this disaster can’t be counted by the number of bodies stacked on top of each other or the number of jobs lost except for maybe by the actuaries and insurance folks.

Sorry to all of you mathematicians in the house but I think some equations aren’t meant to be solved by crunching the numbers. There are just some things that can’t be quantified, no matter how hard you try.

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Halfway home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.

I think the people who came out unscathed and consider themselves the “lucky ones” might be somewhat mistaken. Their house and their possessions might be intact but everything surrounding their way of life has changed. What schools are left? Where will you shop? What restaurants will you eat in? Where will you do your grocery shopping? What parks will your children play in?

Things always run deeper than they seem.

And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.

I don’t keep in contact with any of my friends that I had when I was fourteen. I have some old pictures though and to look at them dressed in the style of the day brings a certain smile to my face. They were “rockers”, I was a “hippie”.

I’m guessing that they were the ones who changed. As my generation quickly approaches middle age, lets sure as hell hope so.

So now I’m disenchanted with my leaders from all sides of the table. Too much self-interest and not enough general good of the people for me. Will the days ever turn around again?

There are too many people waking up in too many strange places today for me to believe that it won’t. There are too many people hurting, not in countries like Iraq and cities like Baghdad but right here on our doorstep in cities like New Orleans and states like Louisiana. The ones in Baghdad, they’re like those television shows I talked about earlier. The ones that are too far away for me to touch and feel even though I know that they exist.

The ones in New Orleans though, they’re like those old black men on the freight car or that you see up close and personal everyday in most American cities. They come out from under the doormat every once in awhile to shatter our sense about just how good it is that most of have it. You can almost feel them and smell them.

That's real...

Good night, America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

The people that are still stranded, the people that are waking up under strange roofs and stranger surroundings, they must feel like the forgotten ones. They don’t see the news at six or have access to the daily paper to check on their plight. They are the ones living it.

Somehow I can just picture them singing that final chorus.

Lyrics to “The City of New Orleans” ©1970, 1971 EMI U Catalogue, Inc and Turnpike Tom Music (ASCAP)

CST Approved