Track of the Day: 'City of New Orleans' by Willie Nelson

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The song isn’t about the city itself, but rather a train called City of New Orleans, which travels overnight between Chicago and NOLA:

A reader in Houston, Dan, knows that train well:

My father and mother met on a train in Louisiana in 1941. My father, a 25 year old from Appleton, WI, was in the army (yes, pre-Pearl Harbor) and was coming back from his mother’s funeral. My mother, a 16 year old from Franklin, LA, in St Mary’s Parish, was introduced to my father by the nuns she was traveling with.

They corresponded throughout the war (my father saw much combat in Europe with the First Special Service Forces) and he proposed in a letter. They married when he returned in 1946. My grandfather said he knew the Civil War was over when his daughter married a Yankee.

Ah, but that is not the City of New Orleans.

The train in 1964 (Wikimedia)

During my childhood my family spent every summer in Louisiana and every winter in Wisconsin (there was something wrong with that picture). In 1963 I was five years old and my oldest brother was 14. Our mother was already in Louisiana with two of my siblings, and for some reason, the folks decided it would be a good idea for my brother and me to take the train down—just the two of us. We took the City of New Orleans. And instead of getting a roomette (I can hear my father say it would be a waste of money to get a roomette for those kids), we just had second-class seats.

We made it to New Orleans, complete with a change in depots in Chicago. At one point I got mad at my brother for trying to make me eat Jell-O with fruit in it. I got so mad I walked back from the dining car to our seats on my own. I am still not quite sure how I found the seats; I was 5, for crying out loud!

It was a fun trip. AND I get to tell anyone who cares that I rode on the City of New Orleans.

Update from a reader, Greg (who might not have seen our previous TotD linking to the Guthrie and Goodman versions):

I have a low opinion of Willie Nelson’s recording of “City of New Orleans.” I don’t detect any modifications to Arlo Guthrie’s interpretation (which is substantially different from Steve Goodman’s original) that he may have made, save for changing “Good night, America, how are you” at the end to “Good morning.” Hell, I wonder if Nelson changed that lyric simply because it’s a downer if it’s interpreted metaphorically.

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