Steve Goodman

  Jerome Shea       May 28, 2012      Weekend Wonk

I was going to title this wonk “One-Hit Wonders,” but to my mind there is something chintzy about the phrase, something slightly disrespectful, and Steve Goodman deserves a lot better than that. We’ll get to the late Steve Goodman in a minute, which will give you time to try to place the name.

Whatever we want to call them, I am thinking of writers, composers, painters—any artists, really—who are known only for one or two pieces. A couple of poets spring to mind. They may have written and published quite a lot, but unlike a Frost or a Wordsworth or a Dylan Thomas, the bulk of their output is forgotten (and perhaps rightly so). But for good or ill, we have come to think of those one or two surviving works as perfect pearls. There is something very romantic about that, about a genius that flashes brilliantly just once, before the poet subsides into mere talent. Case in point: probably only we old English professors know of Ernest Dowson, but fifty years ago you would have found him in your college English Literature anthology, getting perhaps a single page somewhere in the Victorian section. Dowson is known for just two short poems with unwieldy Latin titles, and not even for the whole poems. Just a few lines have become part of the culture. It was Dowson who gave us the phrase “days of wine and roses,” Dowson who gave Margaret Mitchell “gone with the wind” for a book title, and Dowson who inspired Cole Porter to compose “Always True to You in My Fashion” for Kiss Me, Kate. (Dowson’s snarky line is “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”) And in that same era there is Francis Thompson and his masterwork, “The Hound of Heaven.” But perhaps we will save both of these strange figures for a later wonk. Yes, I think so.

Anyone place Steve Goodman yet? You, in the back…YES! “City of New Orleans”! Congratulations! Steve Goodman was a folk singer and song writer, born in Chicago in 1948. “City of New Orleans” is not the only song he wrote, but it has become one of our great American anthems. What got me thinking about Goodman was a CD of American classics now playing in my Miata. I find myself keeping it on “repeat” as that Illinois Central “train pulls out at Kankakee” and finally, sadly, succumbs to “the disappearing railroad blues.” I grin at the honky-tonk piano, I tear up at certain lines and melodies. The chorus just kills me. I belt it out to my fellow travelers. The version on that CD is the Arlo Guthrie cover. (Other big names covered it, too.) Guthrie is so closely identified with the song that many people assume that he wrote it. He didn’t. Steve Goodman did. And—damn right—that will be on the test.

Goodman began performing in high school and never stopped, but he never hit the big time the way Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Leonard Cohen, and others did. He did write other songs, some sad, some funny. He is revered in Chicago as a favorite son. But “the train song” was the brass ring that let him keep doing what he loved.* Life dealt him a bad hand, though. In his early twenties, Goodman was diagnosed with leukemia. He lived with it, defiantly, for almost half his life and died of it at 36.

“City of New Orleans” sketches a journey, a clackety-clack journey through our heartland, and every detail, every picture, is exactly what it should be:

Dealin’ card games with the old men in the club car
Penny a point ain’t no one 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 fathers’ magic carpet made of steel.

It is not just a journey through space. It’s a magic journey through time, too, which is why that train keens at the end, “Goodnight, America, how are you? / Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.” It is a song about what changes and what will never change. I can’t explain it, but that line about “their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel” always makes me think of my own father, and then me, and then my own son, the three of us hitched together forever by those big knuckle couplings as we rumble inexorably down the Always Track. Where we’re headed or when we’ll get there I don’t know, but it’s not New Orleans. Must be on some other Map.

Goodnight, America. Vale, Steve Goodman.

*When people asked Don MacLean what “American Pie” meant, he used to say that it meant that he’d never have to work again.

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