“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./All along the southbound odyssey/The train pulls out at Kankakee/Rolls along past houses, farms and fields./Passin’ towns that have no names,/Freight yards full of old black men/And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.” Steve Goodman “City Of New Orleans” 1970
That above is the first verse of what I consider the best contemporary train song written, if not one of the best train songs period. Simple words that evoke a whole lot more then what appears on the page, spelling the end of an era. The airplane and people’s desire to get from one place to another with no thought but the destination in mind was the death knell of train as a means of mass public transportation.
But our romantic love affair with the train hasn’t ended. Arlo Guthrie has convinced Amtrak to run the City of New Orleans along its old route one more time for a benefit tour of concerts he’s doing to raise money for the post hurricane relief. The pity of it is that the man who wrote this song, Steve Goodman, isn’t around to see her take another run.
Mr. Goodman died of Leukemia September 20th 1984 after struggling to beat it for years. I was fortunate enough to have seen him in concert in the late 1970’s at the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto Islands during one of his remissions. My memories of that show are of a strong clear voice ringing out across a lawn covered with people, singing about subjects as diverse as sexual preferences and towing companies:
” There are men who love women who love men, there are women who love women now and then there are men who love men because they cannot pretend to be men who love women who love men.” Steve Goodman “Men Who Love Women Who Love Men” 1977
It’s funny because Mr. Goodman has been on my mind somewhat lately, what with the above mentioned tour by Arlo Guthrie, and the fact that I just finished reviewing Arlo’s latest concert disc where he of course performed “City of New Orleans”. Somehow or other the universe seems to have been reading my mind because I opened the inbox on my email this morning and staring back up at me from the subject line of one letter were the words Steve Goodman biography.
Once again, the divine power of the Internet reveals itself. The author of this forthcoming biography, Clay Eals, had read the piece I had written about the Mariposa Folk Festival where I had seen Mr. Goodman and thought I might be interested in his project Steve Goodman: Facing The Music
According to the project summary that he forwarded to me, this looks to be an incredibly detailed account of the life of a fascinating man, and much under appreciated performer and songwriter. Mr. Eals has done extensive research that has included sifting through hundreds of written and videotaped interviews with Mr. Goodman and those that knew him, and conducted interviews personally with others, ranging from Studs Terkel to Jerry Jeff Walker to Martin Mull, all in order to glean as much anecdotal information as possible about the man.
His aim is to: “take(s) a comprehensive, journalistic look at Steve Goodman’s life and music, exploring his personality and character with details and anecdotes that bring his story alive.” Even his summary has supplied me with information I didn’t know about Mr. Goodman. I hadn’t known until I read it that when I saw him in 1978 he was already sick with the Leukemia that was destined to kill him.
Mr. Eals also promises to delve into the details of the 100 songs that he wrote plus the countless others that he covered in concert and on record. Like most folk singers Steve’s voice wasn’t the most melodious you could ask for, but he had an innate ability to find the emotional core of a song and convey it to an audience. It was years before I could be convinced that he hadn’t written the song “The Dutchman” such was the conviction and passion that he brought to it.
Clay Eals brings a background to this project that looks ideally suited to meet its needs. Fifteen years in journalism for four Northwestern newspapers, two years teaching journalism, and thirteen years as a curriculum writer and editor for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle. He’s also the author of two previous book projects that have both required extensive research: a history of West Seattle and the biography of child actor Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu in It’s A Wonderful Life).
Steve Goodman: Facing The Music is an intriguing title for this book Given something he says in the summary; “Validating those who believe in music as a life force…”, the nature of his work for a Cancer Research Centre, and the fact Steve Goodman fought cancer for nearly sixteen years it opens the door to some intriguing possibilities.
An exploration of the power of creativity and inspiration as a means of providing a will to survive taken strictly from an artist’s view, instead of a clinical psychological one, would be fascinating. I know from personal experience that creative energy gives me the ability to lift myself beyond my own personal disability, so I’ll be interested to see if this book talks about how Mr. Goodman’s music affected his resilience to Leukemia.
Steve Goodman: Facing The Music will be published by ECW Press of Toronto, Ontario Canada and is slated for a fall of 2006 release date. The chorus in the song “City of New Orleans has always made me think of Mr. Goodman’s own relative anonymity as compared to those who have covered his songs. Lets hope this book is able to correct that imbalance.
Good morning America how are you?/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./ Steve Goodman “City Of New Orleans” 1970