Saturday, July 10, 2010

July 10: Arlo Guthrie, "City Of New Orleans"

Artist: Arlo Guthrie
Song: "City Of New Orleans"
Album: Hobo's Lullaby
Year: 1972

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While the major styles or genres within music are rather easy to define, the smaller sub-genres of each of the large groups are often quite difficult, as many of them can crossover into other genres, making for a lot of "gray area."  For example, while it is quite easy to define a song as "folk music," it can also fall into a smaller category of "Americana" or "folk rock" among many other possibilities.  The first of these two subgroups is by far one of the most interesting to explore, as there are songs ranging from blues to jazz to heavy metal that can be described as having a touch of "Americana."   Yet it is within the realm of folk music where a majority of this style can be found, and few artists better capture the essence of "Americana" than Arlo Guthrie.  In many ways picking up where his father, the iconic Woody Guthrie, left off, Arlo's brand of folk was a bit lighter insofar as content was concerned, yet there was always a deeper meaning within his words, and many of his songs went on to define an entire generation.  From the legendary "Alice's Restaurant" to the social critiques of "Coming Into Los Angeles" to the brilliantly covert commentary of "The Motorcycle Song," few have proven to have similar skill with crafting words.  Yet there are few songs in the Arlo Guthrie catalog that better define who he was as an artist than one finds in his 1972 classic, "City Of New Orleans."

Truth be told, for a man who made his name as one of the finest folk singers in history, "City Of New Orleans" was not penned by Arlo Guthrie.  It was in fact written by Steve Goodman, as legend says that he only got Guthrie to listen to his song by buying him beers one evening.  True or not, Guthrie almost immediately recorded the song, and though many others like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson covered the song, there is little question that the Guthrie version remains the standard by which all others are judged.  Using his trademark light, meandering acoustic guitar sound, Guthrie gives "City Of New Orleans" a somewhat upbeat, shuffle, and this plays in odd contrast to the lonesome words and mood that his voice brings to the song.  With little more than a two-note bassline and simple drum rhythm, it is truly stunning how much of a feel of movement Guthrie is able to bring to the track, as even with this minimalist musical approach, one instantly gets the feeling of being on the train about which the song was written.  It is within this amazing mood that the albums' title, Hobo's Lullaby, becomes understandable, as one can almost picture a lonesome stow-away singing this song as the train clicks down the tracks in the evening.  It is this ability to convey such vivid images and moods that makes all of the songs of Arlo Guthrie so fantastic, and what sets him so high above his peers.

Much like his father, Arlo Guthrie has one of the most pure, honest, and recognizable voices in the entire history of music.  Friendly if nothing less, it is this inviting quality that makes his songs so enjoyable, as there is consistently a welcoming mood on every song he sings.  On "City Of New Orleans," Guthrie's voice is so soothing, that one can imagine the song being sung around a campfire as easily as one can picture the song being played on the train itself, as those sitting around him join in for the fantastic choral harmonies.  It is this power to bring listeners from any genre into his music that made Arlo, as well as his father, such massive successes, and much the reason that nearly forty years after its release, "City Of New Orleans" still sounds fresh and relevant.  Though he did not pen the words to the song, it is the way in which Arlo Guthrie sings the worlds that brings them to live, and few of his songs have as much "movement" and imagery as one finds here.  From the "three conductors, twenty-five sacks of mail" to the scene "dealing card games with the old men in the club car" to the "mothers with their babes asleep," each line adds to the portrait he paints, and it is as if he is walking down the center aisle of the train, looking at each seat.  While one cannot deny that Steve Goodman wrote fantastic words, it is the magic of Guthrie's voice and the rhythm of his words that truly gives them life.

In the era when folk music was still finding consistent commercial success, Arlo Guthrie released his best selling single of his career in the form of the Steve Goodman penned classic, "City Of New Orleans."  At face value, little more than a simple description of a train ride, the sensational talents of Guthrie give the words a life and power that has made them able to transcend generations as well as musical tastes.  Truth be told, Guthrie himself never actually even rode on the train about which he sings until 2005, when he took the train as part of a fund raiser to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Regardless, the mood and spirit which he conveys on the song make it sound as if he himself was sitting on the train as he sang, and his extraordinary talent for involving the listener still make it feel as if you are there in the next seat.  As usual, Guthrie uses very little instrumentation, and one can make the case that the song would have been just as powerful had he not included the sparse bass and drums that are found on the studio recording.  There is also an organ that plays the harmonies throughout, and though does not sound in any way "bad," one can easily picture the song with nothing more than Guthrie and a guitar.  The song is unquestionably the pinnacle of the "Americana" style, and few songs better define the sound or the singer as a whole than one finds in Arlo Guthrie's soft yet stellar 1972 single, "City Of New Orleans."

No comments: