This afternoon my mother left for Chicago via the City of New Orleans, the famous train running from New Orleans to Chicago. I sang the song all day afterwards.
Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central – Monday Morning Rail.
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
Its old arrivals board now has only two arrivals and two departures every day. And not many more people. And this during a time when the city is literally packed with tourists. It’s not just a ghost town, it’s the spooky tree at the edge of the ghost town’s graveyard. And the aging 1950s infrastructure successfully conjures up all the terrible sadness and sudden existential doubt of a Kerouac novel. I guess all this meshes with the song.
For those who don’t know the song, there are several versions (Guthrie, Cash, Nelson), all worth investigating – it’s one of the great American songs, and the greatest and most modern of the railroad songs – but to me Willie Nelson is the place to start. He’s alone among the singers in his complete identification with the song’s train protagonist – he turns the song of the railroad into a song of himself. Here’s a version he did with the Highwaymen, with his customary avoidance of the beat, and here’s a more reined-in studio version.