About the song

John Denver’s City of New Orleans. A folksy gem that evokes a sense of wanderlust and the timeless allure of train travel. Denver, a true champion of the American spirit, captured the hearts of millions with his optimistic brand of country-folk. But City of New Orleans, released in 1971, transcends genre. It’s a song woven from the threads of Americana, a nostalgic tapestry depicting a bygone era of railroad journeys.

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The song, however, wasn’t originally Denver’s. It sprang from the mind of another folk icon, Steve Goodman. The story goes that Goodman, a Chicago-based singer-songwriter, penned the tune in a single night, drawing inspiration from his experiences riding trains across the country. He even included details specific to the Illinois Central Railroad, the route the “City of New Orleans” actually ran.

Denver, upon hearing Goodman’s creation, was immediately captivated. There’s a tale that the two collaborated on the song in a hotel room, with Denver making some lyrical tweaks. However, Goodman disputes this, claiming Denver essentially adopted the song as his own. Regardless of the origin story, Denver’s rendition became the definitive version, propelling the song to international fame.

City of New Orleans opens with a gentle guitar strumming, setting the pace for a melancholic yet strangely comforting journey. Denver’s warm baritone ushers us aboard the train, the lyrics painting a vivid picture: “Riding on the City of New Orleans, Illinois Central Monday morning rail.” We’re introduced to the characters – fifteen restless riders, conductors, and sacks of mail – all embarking on a southbound odyssey.

The verses meander through the American landscape, taking us past sleepy towns, sprawling fields, and the melancholic sight of “freight yards full of old gray men / The graveyards of rusted automobiles.” Denver’s voice, imbued with a touch of wistfulness, perfectly captures the fleeting nature of the journey, the ever-changing scenery a constant reminder of the miles slipping by.

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The chorus explodes with a sense of pride and belonging. The train itself becomes a character, a mechanical troubadour singing, “Good mornin’, America, how are you / Sayin’ don’t you know me, I’m your native son / I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans / And I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” It’s a declaration of identity, a powerful metaphor for the ever-evolving American spirit, restless and forever pushing forward.

City of New Orleans isn’t just a song about a train ride; it’s a meditation on the passage of time, the allure of the unknown, and the beauty found in the mundane details of a journey. It’s a song that resonates with anyone who’s ever felt the tug of wanderlust, the yearning for adventure that lies just beyond the horizon.

Video

Lyrics

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.
They’re out on the south-bound odyssey and the train pulls out of Kankakee.
Rolling long past houses, farms and fields.
Passing towns that have no name, freight yards full of old gray men,
the graveyards of the rusted automobiles,

Singing, good morning America, how are you?
Saying, 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.

Dealing cards with the old men in the club car.
Plenty of points, ain’t no one keeping score.
Say, won’t you pass the paper bag that holds the bottle.
And feel the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor.
And the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers
ride their father’s magic carpet made of steel.
And the days are full of restless, and the dreams are full of memories,
and the echoes of the freight train whistles clear.

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Singing, good morning America, how are you?
Saying, 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.

But it’s twilight on the city of New Orleans, talk about a pocket full of friends.
Halfway home and we’ll be there by morning.
With no tomorrow waiting ’round the bend.

Singing good night, America, I love you.
Saying, 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.

Singing, good morning America, how are you?
Saying, 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.