In 1971 folksinger Steve Goodman ran into Arlo Guthrie at a bar in Chicago. Goodman had written a song and wanted to play it for Guthrie. Guthrie said he would listen for as long as it took him to drink a beer, which Goodman had to buy.
Goodman sang the song.
Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday mornin’ rail
Fifteen cars and 15 restless riders
Three conductors, 25 sacks of mail
Guthrie liked it and asked for permission to record it, Goodman agreed, and Guthrie released it in July 1972. “City of New Orleans” was the most popular song Guthrie ever recorded, his only top-40 hit.
Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, John Denver, and Judy Collins all recorded it, as did many others, and most of them butchered it. It was translated into German, Dutch, French, Hebrew, Finnish, and Latvian, and probably more.
Guthrie’s version became an American anthem. I listen to it often. I suppose I’ve heard it a thousand times.
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
and I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done
Recently, I stumbled across the Illinois Central’s City of New Orleans in a book I am reading, Isabel Wilkerson’s splendid “The Warmth of Other Suns.” It is the epic story of the most significant migration in American history, the mass exodus of almost six million Black citizens to the north and west in two waves between 1915 to 1970.
In rich and often painful detail, Wilkerson, a journalist and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, unpacks in fastidious detail the lives of three individuals who manage, at great risk, to escape brutal bondage under Jim Crow laws that gave them no chance in life, no matter what the Emancipation Proclamation had promised.
They were headed into the unknown, and it was no panacea because racism was well established across the country. But there were jobs, and there was hope.
One of those who fled was Ida Mae Gladney, who, with her husband, and in complete secrecy, snuck away from the cotton farm where they had been sharecroppers.
With two children and a few belongings, they escaped on a train called The Rebel, then another, then, finally, the Illinois Central’s Louisiane, later to become the now famous City of New Orleans, which over time carried a million black citizens – refugees – to Chicago, where they spread through the heavily industrialized Midwest.
It was that industrialization that led, unintentionally, to the development of railroad routes that would turn the Illinois Central into an “Overground Railroad” that for most of its route shadowed the old Underground Railroad, and that allowed the migration of more than a million Black citizens on the Illinois Central alone.
As a result, by 1920 the Black population of Chicago had spiked 148 percent, Philadelphia 500 percent, and Detroit 611 percent.
I think I first heard of the Underground Railroad in grade school, where I also heard of the Gold Rush and the Dust Bowl. But I’d never heard of the Great Migration.
Perhaps I missed school that day. But I don’t think so.
I know I’d remember if I’d heard about how bundles of the anti-South Chicago Defender newspaper were secretly tossed from the southbound train by Pullman porters on the Illinois Century, turning the Defender into one of the highest circulation Black newspapers in the country and giving Blacks throughout the south a window into life in the North.
I know I’d remember the courage and determination of migrants like Ida Mae.
And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpet made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep, rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel
A song. A book. A history lesson.
Sure wish I’d known all this a long time ago. Grateful that I know it now.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.