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Why should a passenger train chugging across the countryside be something poignant and romantic, rather than merely a rather slow, if energy efficient, method of travelling long distances? Is it nostalgia for a simpler time? Maybe those of us used to being crammed into narrow airline seats with nothing to look at but the slob across the aisle, or perhaps the dreary cloud deck below, supposing we’re lucky enough to be next to the window, think wistfully of sitting in roomy comfort while the scenery rolls by, passing through picturesque small towns and along the leafy green edges of seemingly endless farmer’s fields?

And why is the blaring horn of a distant train in the dead of night the loneliest sound you’ll ever hear, yet still somehow comforting? Do we sense the solitude of those who need to be wide awake and working hard while everybody else lies tucked into bed? Is there solace in hearing the distant sound of steel wheels clicking down the rails, and realizing in that moment that you’re not really all alone in the dark? Maybe you’ve felt something similar if you’ve ever been up in the wee hours in a quiet place, and noticed a high-flying jet blinking away overhead, leaving long silvery contrails reflecting in the moonlight – that eerie sense of connection, almost telepathic, shared with the people up there you imagine to be looking back down at that same moment, perhaps wondering themselves about who might be watching from far below. It’s an oddly indefinable state of mind, a little sad, a little hopeful, sometimes peaceful, sometimes almost resigned and philosophical. Sometimes it feels like all is right with the world. Sometimes it just is what it is, and nothing to be done.

I’m taken to that sort of place whenever I listen to Arlo Guthrie’s classic rendition of City of New Orleans. I find myself imagining a certain tableau: the engineers sitting in the dim light of the instrument panel, rolling across the wide open landscape at four in the morning, sounding the warning as the next level crossing looms ahead, and wondering whether somebody out there in the distance, maybe some hard-working farmer getting up before dawn, is pausing for a moment and taking note that the train is right on time.

It’s that sort of song, don’t you think?

It may come as a surprise that Arlo didn’t compose City of New Orleans, so much does it sound like something that Woody Guthrie’s son should have written, but the credit goes to relatively unknown country performer Steve Goodman, who recorded it to little fanfare in 1970, about a year prior to Arlo making it a hit. Goodman’s story is a sad one, his whole adult life blighted by an aggressive form of leukemia that killed him young at only 36, and forced him to confront his own mortality from an age at which most of us have yet to land our first real jobs. This is usually taken to explain the essentially melancholy perspective that infuses the song, which he was inspired to write while travelling by rail with his wife, Nancy, to visit her grandmother in Illinois. Some people interpret the story of the train disappearing into darkness as a metaphor for impending death, but I don’t know that I’d take it that far. Actually, I’d argue that there aren’t a lot of songs with their feet more firmly planted in unvarnished reality. It’s not full of symbolism, and it’s not about the writer. This is objective storytelling, a slice of other people’s lives, and in that sense is more like folk than country music.

City of New Orleans was the name of a real train run by the Illinois Central line between Louisiana and Chicago, which made overnight round trips over what was for many years the longest daily scheduled route in the country. Goodman was aboard for what he was told was going to be one of its last trips. As night fell and his wife went off to sleep, Steve took out a notepad and simply recorded what he saw and heard, inside and outside: the guys playing cards in the club car; the conductor’s sing-song announcements over the PA, then familiar to regular rail commuters everywhere, instructing passengers to “please refrain from smoking, refrain also from putting your feet on the seats, and please also refrain from making too much noise”; the sometimes lovely, sometimes depressing scenery along the way; the inevitably African-American men doing all the hardest jobs in the rail yards. As you can see in the attached video, it was practically a straightforward piece of journalism, with the real world supplying all the beauty and pathos, all the acute little details and observations, that are more typically the stuff of the best fiction (“Norman Rockwell meets John Steinbeck”, as music critic Rick Moore put it in an article in American Songwriter magazine). Goodman later told an interviewer that the song pretty much wrote itself: it was an accident, it just tumbled out when I was riding the train … Nancy fell asleep, and I looked out of the window and wrote down everything I saw. The whole thing took 45 minutes, I don’t want to make it out as anything more than it was. That’s the way it works, sometimes, for a certain few who manage somehow to see everything as if from a perch higher than where the rest of us sit, and comprehend it all in ways we never do. It just comes out all at once, fully formed, and they can’t even tell you how.

He was only 22 years old.

What he saw that night in 1970 was a way of life drawing to a close – this train’s got the disappearing railroad blues, goes the lyric – and along with it the careers that had seen untold numbers of blue collar workers through good and hard times, and their parents before them, the engineers, the conductors, the legendary Pullman Porters who staffed the world famous sleeper cars supplied by the Pullman Company back when the train was the only way to go. I wonder how many modern listeners have ever heard of a Pullman Porter, who was always a black man holding down a very difficult job which nevertheless was, in a racist America, about the best a man of colour could get, part butler, part baggage handler, part concierge, part waiter, part cleaner, and part fixer, which paid less than a living wage and left him to subsist on the tips he could gather from the white passengers who always referred to him as “George”, no matter what his real name was. They worked 20 hour shifts and 400 hour months, and if a passenger stole the towels it came out of their wages. They were told always to smile, always to be pleasant, and were expected to be especially discreet and trustworthy, privy as they were to the most intimate details of their passengers’ lives. Immaculately dressed, they carried themselves with hard-earned dignity, and eventually were viewed with a certain level of respect, at least while aboard the trains, where their peculiar status gave them the leverage to form the first all-black labour union, which had to be counted as some sort of progress, even though wages and working conditions still improved only a little. In the result, their example was crucial to the early growth of the civil rights movement, a fact little recognized today. They served on the railways from the 1860s right up until the Pullman company went out of business in 1969, and there were still a number of them working on the trains for other employers when Goodman was taking it all in and putting it to music. It was a living. For many, the only one they’d ever known.

Just like every time and place, maybe ours especially, the world that the young songwriter saw vanishing before his eyes was neither all good nor all bad, full of some traditions and attitudes ripe for the trash heap of history, and others soon to be sorely missed. What Goodman understood as his wife slept, and he scribbled down everything he could see, was that change always disrupts patterns of reliance, and is always to some degree unwelcome and sad, not the least because nobody ever knows what’s coming next. It isn’t hope we feel, not usually. It’s anxiety.

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