Storied Train Used As Vehicle For Giving

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

"This train is bound for glory," sang Arlo Guthrie, joined by his daughter Sarah Lee, son Abe and various friends, as the City of New Orleans train rumbled past factories and fields between Chicago and Kankakee, Ill.

The Dec. 6 trip was actually the first time Guthrie rode the train celebrated in the Steve Goodman song of the same name that Guthrie made so famous. In a hastily-pulled-together benefit, Guthrie and a crew of musicians are riding the City of New Orleans from Chicago to the Big Easy, stopping along the way to play fundraising shows. The goal is to raise money for New Orleans musicians who lost instruments, homes and work as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

But in many ways the trip, which ends tonight with a sold-out show at Tipitina's club in New Orleans, is just as much a celebration of the train itself. The route Goodman wrote about in 1970 was run by the Illinois Central. Now Amtrak operates the 19-hour trip, which runs daily between Chicago and New Orleans, passing through Memphis. The train stopped running because of Katrina's flooding, and the New Orleans train depot was used as a temporary criminal detention facility. But service resumed Oct. 9.

"It really helps people going home to see what they have left," said Darnell Bennett, 38, a kitchen-car staff member who as a child often rode the train from New Orleans to Chicago to visit his mother. "This has always been a lifeline to the South for all the people who migrated to Chicago and Detroit."

When Guthrie heard the train was back on track, he sent an e-mail to his children and a few friends floating the idea of the fundraising trip. Within hours he was swamped with responses from musicians wanting to donate their time and energy.

"We had been glued to the TV" watching the damage in New Orleans, Guthrie said. "Then a little scroll came across the bottom saying the train had resumed service. I thought, why not ride the train I'd sung about 30 years ago, and do fundraisers along the way?"

Trains run in the Guthrie family's blood; famous troubadour Woody Guthrie crisscrossed the country on freight trains visiting starving farmers and labor strikers, and many of his son Arlo's songs also pay homage to trains. In 1987, Arlo Guthrie traveled and sang on the Montrealer train in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Amtrak not to discontinue that line.

"My dad's autobiography starts out on a freight train," said Guthrie, 58, who has spent most of this year touring. "Trains were built by robber barons, the wealthiest guys, and used by the unwealthiest, people who didn't have any other way to go. You can't hitch a ride on an airline, you can't even stick your thumb out on a highway anymore because it's illegal."

Local fans braved the cold to greet the group at the cozy wood-paneled Kankakee train station the night before a recent show. The town of 27,500 about 60 miles from Chicago is not known for much, except recently for being the home of indicted former Illinois governor George Ryan. But the "City of New Orleans" song gave it international recognition. "The train pulls out at Kankakee . . ."

"When I was in the Marine Corps, people all over the world had heard of Kankakee because of the song," said Doug Suppes, a Kankakee native and music promoter. "The city loves it."

Former Kankakee police chief Cleveland "Pops" Thomas has never taken the City of New Orleans train, but now that he is retired he plans to.

"It's one of my desires before I die," he said. "I want to take the City of New Orleans on Friday, party all day on Saturday and come back on Sunday. I haven't been on a train since I was 7 years old, but I love that rocking motion."

"City of New Orleans" became a surprise hit for Guthrie in 1972. His record company didn't even press it as a single until its popularity had already soared.

"Those days the radio stations wouldn't play songs over 2 1/2 minutes, and it was over three," he said. "But a station out of Atlanta started playing it off the album, and soon it spread around the country."

Goodman first sang the song to Guthrie at a now-defunct Chicago bar called the Quiet Knight -- near the Vic Theatre, where Guthrie and company held the kickoff concert for their fundraising trip.

"It's amazing the song is still around," said Guthrie. "But it's a comment on the passing of things. Goodman felt that was an era when trains were disappearing. No matter what era you live in, the world you lived in when you were young was different. I think that tugs at a lot of people."

Singer Cyril Neville, a New Orleans native who recently moved to Austin, hopes the tour will remind people about the devastation that still exists in the city, and the tireless efforts of grass-roots community leaders there.

During the Kankakee show, where he wore Mardi Gras beads and a handmade T-shirt charging ethnic cleansing in New Orleans, Neville sarcastically dedicated a song to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"This train is full of patriots who love America, this is the real rainbow coalition," he said. "Hopefully we'll make a difference. The main thing is to keep a dialogue open about the realities of what has gone on. If we ignore our realities we invite our own destruction. So I'm going to get on this train and ride up and down in the spirit of Woody Guthrie."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company