The Warmth of Other Suns and “The City of New Orleans”

UnknownI loved Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the great migration of blacks from the South between the 1910s and ‘60s. If you’re one of those cynics who thinks nothing ever changes and American racism is just about as bad as ever, read this book.

It isn’t really mainly about racial injustice, but the human beings who responded to it by following a dream for better lives. Yet what they were trying to escape is vividly depicted. You have to wonder why all Southern blacks didn’t just leave. But of course it’s never that simple.

So, while some whites worried that northern cities were being infested with a lower class of people, in general the blacks who came were better people, because it takes such gumption and initiative to uproot oneself like that. This human quality of courageous striving to improve quality of life is so dear to me; that’s why I loved the book.

Unknown-1And I can’t help thinking the same way about all those people in the new migration into our midst. People with the personal qualities to leave behind everything familiar, striking out for something new, aiming for betterment, are the kind of people America should welcome with open arms and flower bouquets. Not fences and handcuffs.

I’ve always also loved Arlo Guthrie’s rendition of Steve Goodman’s song, “The City of New Orleans.” It’s the name of a train, a flagship train bringing blacks north; Wilkerson mentions it. In the original song, the train is actually southbound. But I’ve long had it on a walkman cassette (yeah, I’m living in the last century), and after reading Wilkerson’s book, I hear the song with a new pleasure, and, in my head, lyrics tweaked just slightly. With its last melodic bars, I can just picture that train slowing smoothly to its final stop in the Chicago station, and I get goosebumps. Here’s my version:

imagesRiding 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.
All along the northbound odyssey,
The train pulls out of Mississippi,
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin’ trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black menimages-1
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America, how are you?
Say 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.

images-2Playin’ card games with the men in the Jim Crow car.
Penny a point, ain’t no one keepin’ score.
Pass the cardboard box that holds the chicken;
Feel the wheels a’rumblin’ ‘neath the floor.
And the sons of poor sharecroppers
And the grandchildren of slaves
Ride the blessed magic carpet made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Rockin’ to the gentle beat,
images-3And the rhythm of the rail is all they feel.

Good morning America, how are you?
Say don’t you know me, I’m your native son;
I’m the man they called a nigger or a coon boy.
I’ll be gone from there forever when the day is done.

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans,
Changing cars with Jim Crow left behind.
Halfway out, and we’ll be there by morning,
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling up from the South.
And all its towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream,
And the crackers still ain’t heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
“The passengers will please refrain . . . “
This train’s got the disappearing black folks blues!

Good night, America! How are you!images-5
Say don’t you know us, we’re your native sons.
On the train they call the City of New Orleans,
We’ll have come a million miles when the day is done.*

* Original lyrics copyright 1970 by Turnpike Tom Music. For those who might be concerned (like TB), courts have held that a parody is fair use, and mine qualifies.

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One Response to “The Warmth of Other Suns and “The City of New Orleans””

  1. Robert Ward Says:

    A wonderful post, Frank.

    On Oct 9, 2013, at 11:18 AM, The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > >

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