Arlo, Katrina and a musical trail to New Orleans

The son of Woody Guthrie knew exactly how to revive the musical heritage of the Big Easy. He took a train ride from Chicago all the way down south.
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The Independent US

But all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream, And the steel rail still 'ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again, The passengers will please refrain:
This train has got the disappearin' railroad blues.

More than 30 years ago Arlo Guthrie, son of the late folk legend Woody, sat in a now defunct Chicago bar called the Quiet Knight and listened to a little-known song-writer as he played him one of his recent compositions.

The musician was Steve Goodman and the song he played was about a train called the City of New Orleans. Guthrie took a liking to it and in 1972, that eponymous song about the train that travels from Chicago to New Orleans - a 900-mile journey that bisects the American heartland - became a chart-topping hit around the world. The singer Kris Kristofferson described it as "the best damn train song I ever heard".

While Guthrie made the song famous and will forever be associated with its somewhat melancholy reflections, he had never actually ridden on the train and taken the clattering, twisting journey from Chicago's marble-floored Union Station all the way down to the Big Easy.

And then, in late August this year, Hurricane Katrina struck.

Guthrie, who personally knew of the misery caused by hurricanes after three such storms swept through Florida in 2004 and destroyed the home close to Sebastian that he had spent 20 years restoring, decided he would do what he could to try to help the beleaguered of New Orleans - specifically the city's musicians and performers who, like thousands of others, had lost everything in the storm.

His idea was quite simple. He would board the train and he and his musician friends such as Willie Nelson - who long ago released his own version of the song - would stop off at the towns along the route to play fundraisers to buy new music equipment for the destitute musicians. They would also collect donated instruments and gear. This past weekend their journey finally took them to the Big Easy where Guthrie and Nelson and special guests such as Ramblin' Jack Elliott played two sold-out concerts.

"It's nice to see a city that loves its decadence, that loves its freedom," Guthrie said before the second of two concerts at Tipitina's club, a New Orleans landmark that helped launch the careers of musicians such as the Neville Brothers. "I'm amazed at how much has already come back and I'm amazed at how much still needs to be done."

The City of New Orleans train travels through the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi before slicing through Louisiana on its way towards the sea. It is supposed to take around 20 hours, though when I made the journey a couple of years ago it was several hours late. There are 19 scheduled stops including places such as Kankakee, Illinois - which is mentioned in the song - Memphis, Tennessee, and Greenwood, Mississippi. In Louisiana the train passes close to the Lake Pontrachain Causeway - at 23.87 miles the longest bridge in the world.

The train had stopped running as a result of flooding caused by Katrina and because the depot in central New Orleans had been used as a temporary jail. Normal service resumed on October 9.

Guthrie and his family have long been associated with the railroad. The opening scenes of his father's autobiography open in a freight train carriage and his father was also famous for crossing America on trains, visiting the starving farmers and factory strikers who would inspire his songs. In 1987, Arlo Guthrie sang about and travelled aboard the Montrealer train to persuade Amtrak not to discontinue the service between Washington DC and Montreal. (The service now runs from Vermont to Washington and is called the Vermonter.) Yet Guthrie had never been onboard the train with which he is most associated.

When Katrina struck, claiming more than 1,100 lives, causing billions of dollars worth of damage and leaving in doubt the long-term future of one of the most famous US cities, he saw an opportunity to help.

In an e-mail to friends, family and fans, he wrote: "When I think of New Orleans, I think of music. The city of New Orleans is America's first music city. New Orleans is the city that truly began America's contribution to the history of music worldwide. Without it, there'd be no popular music as we know it today."

He continued: When I wonder what they might need in New Orleans to get back on their feet, the stuff that gets ruined under water, I think of all the sound boards, the cables, the lighting, the microphones, the instruments; I think of the stuff you need in the hundreds of little clubs and bars that bring the music to the street - the street that brings the people to the city.

"And I think of the many thousands of people who depend on those people for their livelihoods. I am determined to help restore all of those little places and bring the music back as soon as possible. Will you help me bring the music back? I'm going ... join us on the train, at the depot, from your office or home, but join us."

With the help and sponsorship of Amtrak, Guthrie arranged to use the train to travel between venues and to draw publicity for the series of concerts. Suitably enough, the first gig, on 5 December, was at Chicago's Vic Theatre - located close to where the Quiet Knight bar once stood.

Focusing on small clubs and venues, the seven-stop tour took Guthrie and his friends to Kankakee, where they were joined by Cyril Neville, who sarcastically dedicated a song to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema); Champaign-Urbana, where they were joined by the country music trio of the Burns Sisters; and Memphis, where folk-singer John Flynn was among the guests. Guthrie's daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, a singer-songwriter, also joined the tour at a number of locations.

Reports suggest the tour has been well-received. In Kankakee, the city's former police chief, Cleveland "Pops", told The Washington Post that he felt inspired to take the train to New Orleans - something he has never done.

"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 seven years old, but I love that rocking motion."

The Amtrak train is used by all manner of people. Some passengers - especially in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the United States - say they feel safer on a train than a plane. Some say it is more convenient for the journey they are making. Others admit they simply prefer the romance of a proper journey that takes in the landscape and provides an intriguing, behind-the-houses view of the country.

Goodman once revealed that he wrote about the train after he and his new wife took it to go to visit her grandmother, south of Chicago. "We were going to see my wife Nancy's grandmother, may she rest. She was ninety-something, living in a retirement home in Southern Illinois, and we were going to tell her we'd got married," he recalled.

"We went to see her. Nancy was asleep and I looked out of the window and wrote down everything I saw. The whole thing took 45 minutes. I don't want to make it out as anything more than it was."

When Goodman had finished writing, this was his song's chorus: "Good mornin' 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 500 miles when the day is done."

For the New Orleans' musicians and performers, Guthrie's tour - expected to raise more than $40,000 (£22,500) - is sorely needed. Their efforts to recover their livelihoods in the aftermath of the storm, have been painfully slow - mirroring the slow and piecemeal recovery of other parts of the city's infrastructure. Many have pointed out that the equipment on which they relied was ruined by the floodwaters or destroyed.

Indeed, the future of the city as people know it remains very unclear. Last week President George Bush announced $3.1bn to rebuild, repair and strengthen the levee system that failed to handle the Force 5 storm. Many observers believe that heavy investment in an effective levee is the only thing that will give those thousands of New Orleaneans who have not yet returned to their city, the confidence to do so. Even so, Mayor Ray Nagin last week warned Congress that "[New Orleans] is being allowed to die as we speak".

While some parts of the city closest to the Mississippi River - the Garden District and the French Quarter - have returned to some sort of normalcy, other areas remained as ruined as they were in the days after the storm. In the poor and overwhelmingly black Lower 9th Ward, reports suggest there is barely a home that has not been left unliveable.

With questionable taste, on New Year's weekend, which the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau has declared the official reopening for tourists, a tour operator will start offering "Hurricane Devastation Tours". (Apparently 10 per cent of the $35 ticket price will go to hurricane relief charities.) If Guthrie required further insight into the destruction wrought by Katrina along the Gulf coast and in Louisiana, he got it last Friday afternoon, when he, his family and his fellow musicians received a two-hour, police-escorted tour through some of the most badly damaged parts of the city.

Among the houses they stopped at in the Lower 9th Ward was that of rock 'n' roll pioneer Fats Domino. Once painted bright pink, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, the house is now splattered with mud, debris and covered in graffiti. "You wonder what is going to happen," said an almost dumb-founded Guthrie, as he stood outside. "No kids. No sound of kids."

And yet as he played his two concerts over the weekend, Guthrie said he believed the famous city that holds a special place in the hearts of musicians and lovers of music, can rebuild and be restored. Not just the city, but the music it produces as well.

"The best music comes from difficult times," he said. "There will be an injection of something different into New Orleans as a result of the disaster ... the culture here will swallow it up and something new will sparkle."