Cornwells Heights Safe

This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. – Winston Churchill, 1942


Good Morning, America.  How Are Ya?


Sunday, September 18, 2005


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The Story of The City of New Orleans


It’s Sunday.  Cornwells Heights survives.  Continuing the job of fixing Amtrak can wait till tomorrow.


Ask anyone, especially a bluegrass fan, what the best train song, or even what the best song of Americana is, and you may come back with a vote for The City of New Orleans, the ballad with the famous refrain, “Good morning, America.  How Are Ya?”  It was written by Steve Goodman, and first performed only a few miles from our station at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1970, almost exactly 35 years to the day before the beginning of the campaign to save Cornwells Heights.


The song apparently didn’t really catch hold until Arlo Guthrie recorded it and sent it up the charts in 1972.  Many other artists have performed and recorded it since then.  I’ve checked.  I bought eight different CDs yesterday, looking for just the right rendition.  The “right” rendition for contemporary ears, in my opinion, is the version recorded by Randy Scruggs.  The original Goodman and Guthrie versions are also great, and if you have a chance to listen to all three in chronological order, you can hear the song age like a very fine wine.  Randy Scruggs pierced the song’s sweet spot with the right tempo, the right orchestration, the right choral backup, and just the right clacking of the tracks and the tracks and the tracks…


Just before he died, John Denver put out a very good album of train songs, entitled All Aboard, which includes The City of New Orleans, and which can easily be justified as an additional CD purchase by the hauntingly poignant song thereon, Jenny Dreamed of Trains, which begins (and secretly ends) the album.  John Denver died in the crash of a Long-EZ airplane he had bought the day before in October, 1997.  Apparently he either forgot to gas up his secondary fuel tank or failed to switch over to it in time when the first one ran dry.  The last song listed on the last of his albums is The City of New Orleans.


In 1970, the year the song was written, The City of New Orleans was a train run by the Ilinois Central Railroad from Chicago to New Orleans.  Also in 1970, Amtrak was created by an act of Congress.  Shortly thereafter, Amtrak began to take over the no-longer-profitable passenger rail services of various railroads around the country, including the Illinois Central.


Rescued thirty-some years ago from sure death by Amtrak – which is threatened, even as I write, with a slow starving death of its own – today there still exists a train called The City of New Orleans.  Miracle be that this old lonely train through America’s heartland  has survived to roll and beat its way to the sea this long – by an odd twist of fate, it’s now the city that’s missing.  Amtrak, four good trainmen I met with three days ago, and perhaps even the steel heart of the crying rails itself tried to rescue those they could from the City.  But they couldn’t, because the City said, “No, go quickly now before the winds take your trains and your tracks.  Hurricanes, I’ve seen before.  Save yourself, lest I need you the worse tomorrow.”  And the train left empty for Memphis, with only the screams of the winds at its back to cover its own mournful cry in the night, a lullaby the delta has slept to for ever, ever so long, in soft nights and dark nights alike.


“Amtrak offered to evacuate people from New Orleans, but city officials declined and the last train left the city - empty.”


But the City will come back someday, and the lonely old train will yet come back a survivor to the City. 


I have here transcribed, as best I possibly can without the sounds, the Randy Scruggs rendition of The City of New Orleans.  If, in the reading, a tear should come to your eye at first in sorrow, hold on to it – read on and read again, until the sound of the tracks and the steel in the rails, and the steel in the memories, and the steel in the men who made them come back to you – and then perhaps the tear you held in sorrow will hold hope. 


Please enjoy as you can, and hum or sing along with one of the greatest songs from America’s heartland, The City of New Orleans. 



The City of New Orleans

by Steve Goodman

as sung by Randy Scruggs


Ridin' on The City of New Orleans,

Illinois Central, Monday morning rail,

Fifteen cars, and fifteen restless riders,

Three conductors, twenty-five sacks of mail.

Out on the southbound odyssey,

The train pulls out of Kankakee

And rolls along past houses, farms, and fields.

Passin' towns that have no name,

Freight yards full of old black men,

And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.


Good morning, America.  How are ya?

Say, 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.


Dealin' card games with the old men in the club car,

Penny a point, ain't nobody 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 daddies' magic carpet made of steel.

Mothers with their babes asleep

Are rockin' to the gentle beat,

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.


Good morning, America.  How are ya?

Say, 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.


Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,

Changin' cars in Memphis, Tennessee.

Half way home -- we'll be there by mornin',

Through the Mississippi darkness,

Rollin' down to the sea.

But all the towns and people

Seem to fade into a bad dream,

And the steel rail still ain't heard the news.

The conductor sings that song again.

The passengers will please refrain,

"This train's got the disappearin' railroad blues."


Good morning, America!  How are ya?

Say, 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.


– Rick