I was born in 1959, so I missed the height of the “Great Folk Scare,” and by the time I was a teenager this music was very much out of fashion. I suppose, in retrospect, that may have been part of its appeal to me, but in any case I was living in my own musical world and felt completely out of sync with what was on the radio — in fact, I tended to have no idea what was on the radio, since my parents only listened to news and I didn’t have one of my own. So this may well be the only song I ever learned after hearing it on the radio.
It was a hit for Arlo Guthrie in 1972, and of course I was ready to be interested in Arlo because of Woody, and it was a good song. I never bought the record, but when Sing Out! published the lyrics and chords, I learned it.
I must have seen that it was composed by Steve Goodman, but the name meant nothing to me — which was true of pretty much everybody outside Chicago when this song hit. I saw him in concert in 1976-77, though, and he was magic. The only thing I remember distinctly was a Supremes medley, which shouldn’t have worked for one little guy on stage with an acoustic guitar, but did — and I’m pretty sure he also played the “Chicken Cordon Blues.” In any case, everything worked, and the songs were terrific and he was very funny.
The story of this song has been told a million times, but to recap: Steve wrote it after taking a trip with his wife to see her grandmother, riding the City of New Orleans, the day train running from Chicago to the title city. (The night train at that point was still the Panama Limited, immortalized by Booker White in the 1930s.) When he got back, a friend mentioned that Amtrak was planning to discontinue the train, so he wrote the song as an elegy — which may have contributed to the fact that a train of this name is still running today (though now it’s the night train). Steve described the lyric as pretty much straight reportage, a list of what he saw out the window, except for the third verse, which he had to make up since he was only going to southern Illinois: “I figured I couldn’t write a song about a train that went 900 miles through the center of the country and stop the song in Mattoon because I was getting off.”
Finally… for young folks who don’t understand that line about “The passengers will please refrain…” I offer Oscar Brand’s version of the widespread and impressively scatological lyric to Humoresque, which will clarify this historical lacuna.