Tuesday, November 01, 2005

"City of New Orleans"

Believe it or not, America was once a place of romance, an endless horizon of hope, anticipation, dreams and fulfilment. Ronald Reagan understood this better than most people and his homely, down-to-earth charisma, his harking back to a simpler, happier age managed to lull the people of the US into a semi-coma of nostalgia while all around the wars, the corruption and lies tore the heart out of the 1980s and set the stage for all that has come since.
This song might as well have been used by Reagan as a sort of soundtrack to the kind of America he longed for and made people long for as well. A simple, rusty, rhythmic ode to the age of Kerouac, drifters and hobos: "All along the southbound odyssey/The train pulls out at Kankakee/Rolls along past houses, farms and fields/Passin' trains that have no names/Freight yards full of old black men/And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles."
The images come to life slowly, easily, powerfully and you feel the seductive pull of the simplicity of a life spent riding the rails, an age when the railway was the height of ambition, the most exciting thing to small-town American, with its long list of waypoints, destinations and simple pleasures: "And the sons of pullman porters/And the sons of engineers/Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel/
Mothers with their babes asleep/Are rockin' to the gentle beat/And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel."
Yet even then, the typhoon of progress was being felt even in the heart of the heartland: "And all the towns and people seem/To fade into a bad dream/And the steel rails still ain't heard the news/The conductor sings his song again/The passengers will please refrain/This train's got the disappearing railroad blues."
It's a simple celebration, this song; a modest elegy, tender and very rose-tinted. And sometimes those pleasures need to taste just a little bitter among the sweetness.

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