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City of New Orleans

Posted by Richard on April 23, 2010

A friend called me last night from New Orleans. She and her niece took the train down there from Memphis for the jazz festival. It sounded like a great time and a great trip — something I'd like to do one of these days.

During the phone conversation, Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" began running through my head, and it's been running through my head ever since. Kris Kristofferson called it "the best damn railroad song ever written," and I won't dispute that. Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" ranks right up there, IMHO, but it's about the building of a railroad, not about a train. So I guess I'd say "City of New Orleans" is the best damn train song ever written.

In the course of consuming a few adult beverages last night, I checked out several YouTube postings of both songs. Sang along with them, too. Several times. My favorite "City of New Orleans" renditions are two by Steve Goodman himself. 

The best, IMHO, is this version from Goodman's Easter Tapes album:

A couple of the comments say it all: 

  • pablocruiser songs like this seem like they fall out of the sky, written by gods. almost too good to be human. and what sweet guitar picking. this guy was one of a kind.
  • AZHappy This song is so lovely it makes me weep. This is such a unique country. It's defined by the landscape and by it's people. Get out of your houses and go see it! Take the train. Drive your car. Ride your bike. Breathe it. Smell it. Just get out there and find out what Steve Goodman wrote about.
    Lord, I hope somebody, right now, is writing a song this sweet. 

This live performance with the legendary Jethro Burns is pretty awesome, too:

[YouTube link]

It just wouldn't be right not to include a version by Arlo Guthrie, who made it a hit record. Here's a pretty good one from 1978:

[YouTube link]

What a great song! What a shame that leukemia claimed Steve Goodman at such a young age. He was a national treasure, and it saddens me immensely to think of all the songs he never had a chance to write and sing. If you're not familiar with Steve Goodman, I strongly encourage you to learn about and listen to more of him. Check him out at YouTube for starters. "You've Never Even Called Me by My Name," "The Dutchman," "Penny Evans," and "Chicken Cordon Blues" will give you a sense of what a terrific talent he was.

And then there's "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request" — which could serve as his epitaph.

If you're wondering about "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," I recommend the original 1967 recording, available on this album. But here's Gordon Lightfoot performing it live just a couple of years ago:

[YouTube link]

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3 Responses to “City of New Orleans”

  1. Rick Shultz said

    Hey Richard. Decided to stick my 2 cents worth in on this one. I wouldn’t take away from “City of New Orleans” for the world

    because it is probably the greatest train song ever written but, you know what comes to mind for me when I think of train

    songs? I think of Shorty Medlocke and “Train, Train”. Just can’t help it 🙂 Blackfoot is one of the damn best bands I ever heard, and the sight of Ricky Medlocke, Shorty’s grandson, up there on stage doing “Train, Train” is a cherished memory. And listening to

    Shorty playing that harmonica solo in the middle of the studio recording like it was on fire and he was trying to blow it out is

    sublime. Ah, the memories of a musician….

  2. rgcombs said

    Rick, I’ll grant you — that’s a rockin’ good song (listen here).

    But for me at least, it doesn’t strike the emotional chord or evoke the romantic, nostalgic sentiments about trains (I have some good train ride memories) that ”City of New Orleans” does.

    That said, I’m glad you reminded me of it. And finding the album version online (the live versions on YouTube can’t match it) led me to learn something I didn’t know: Shorty Medlocke was the inspiration for ”The Ballad of Curtis Lowe”, probably my favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song. So, thanks!

  3. rgcombs said

    I should walk back that previous comment a bit. I only listened to 3 of the live clips that came up on YouTube. They all featured mediocre-to-poor audio, unintelligible lyrics, overly-fast performances, and too much guitar bombast. So I much prefer the studio version I linked to, which begins with Shorty himself on harmonica.

    But I just noticed that there are about a dozen live performances on YouTube, and maybe one of them is a gem, and I just missed it…

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