City of New Orleans
I’m sure I’m not the only one who downloaded the song “City of New Orleans” this weekend, but for those who may still do so, I recommend the Arlo Guthrie version, with its spare backing and pure emotion, over Willie Nelson’s more glitzy rendition.
My dad used to play this song when I was a kid. I loved it then because I loved trains, and this is a song about a train, the City of New Orleans, making a run from Illinois to Louisiana. Later I realized it is also a song about the end of an American institution, the railroad. In a tone that is at once bitter and plaintive, the black locomotive calls out: “Good morning America, how are you? Don’t you know me, I’m your native son?”
The train calls this out as it passes “freight yards full of old black men and the graveyards of the rusted automobiles,” and listening to it now, one can’t help but hear the tone as being pitifully similar to the tone of the pleas for help that came from New Orleans over the last week. It is the song of the proud but forgotten.