Guthrie Seeks to Aid the City of Which He Sang

Dec. 17, 2005 — -- On a cold December night, the old train left Chicago and headed south down tracks that once hummed with the music of America.

The fabled "City of New Orleans" is run by Amtrak now, with all that that implies in terms of creature comforts, service and food. But for a few days this month, the passenger cars were at least swaying to a different beat.

Arlo Guthrie and friends were aboard on this trip, riding "a carpet made of steel" on a "southbound odyssey" -- phrases taken from the Steve Goodman song "The City of New Orleans," which Guthrie immortalized three decades ago.

This time, Guthrie and his band of friends were on a rescue mission for musicians from the Big Easy who've been driven from their homes, had their instruments ruined, lost their jobs -- or all of the above. Guthrie raised money for them at concerts along the way past Kankakee, Ill., Memphis, Tenn., Greenwood, Miss., and other evocative stops.

"All the jazz, all the blues, all the rock 'n' roll, all the folk stuff that we do here in this country, all the country music owes a debt of gratitude to these boys in New Orleans," Guthrie told ABC News.

He spoke as he rode aboard a specially outfitted "Illinois Central" car attached to the back end of the Amtrak train. The special car recalled lines from the song he made famous. …

"Riding on the City of New Orleans,

Illinois Central Monday morning rail

Fifteen cars and 15 restless riders,

Three conductors and 25 sacks of mail."

Less Music

You can still hear music in New Orleans' famous French Quarter, but there is less of it because so many musicians dispersed after Katrina and Rita.

Brazella Briscoe is a member of the Zion Harmonizers, a group that has been performing up-tempo gospel songs for the better part of seven decades and was a regular at New Orleans' House of Blues.

Since Katrina, though, the group's music has been silenced. Briscoe showed ABC News some brand-new equipment that is worthless now, having been underwater for weeks.

"We lost about $10,000 worth of equipment," he said, ruefully, as he surveyed the damaged goods still piled high in a panel truck parked outside his moldy home in the devastated Ninth Ward

"We're not complaining," said Briscoe, "things happen. And we just thank God we were able to endure it."

Briscoe is the kind of guy Guthrie is trying to help.

"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."

'We Owe It to Them'

Guthrie wants to make sure there is no parallel between the song and the city.

"That song meant a lot to a lot of people," he said. "It was about a way of life that was sort of disappearing."

"The thing I fear the most is that we will lose a city that loves its own decadence," he continued. "It has not become safe for families and everybody else, and I don't think they want it to be that way.

"There's got to be some place left where people are living on the edge and enjoying that. And that's what we'll lose here if we don't get it back."

Guthrie had a big concert Friday night, after arriving in New Orleans, and another is planned for Saturday. All proceeds go to bringing the music back to the Big Easy.

"I think we owe it to them, because the music that we're playing -- the kinds of traditions that we come from -- have their roots in New Orleans," Gutrhie said. "You got Delta blues and you got Chicago blues and you got bluegrass -- all kinds of stuff that was all mixed because New Orleans was sort of the original melting pot."

The trip was special for Guthrie for another reason: It was his first trip on this famous train.

"My commitment to this won't end when the curtain comes down on the last show," he said. "This is something we're going to want to keep working on."

Brazella Briscoe and the Zion Harmonizers are grateful for the effort.

"Good night, 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 five hundred miles when the day is done."