Monday, January 13, 2014

The City of New Orleans and the Vanity of Progress

            Have you ever heard the song The City of New Orleans? It’s an American folksong (written, I believe, in 1971) about a trip on the train “The City of New Orleans.” The song is equal parts a plea and an elegy; a meditation on the vanity of technology and progress and a paean to a vanishing way of life. 

            The first lyrics go:
Riding 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.

            The shadow of the disappearing railroad is cast right away; the train has fifteen cars, but only fifteen passengers, who are looked after by three conductors. Not only are there only fifteen riders, but they’re ‘restless;’ presumably they’re thinking about how much faster a plane would have been, and they’re impatient to get to their destination.  
            Time has compressed; a two or three day journey from Chicago to New Orleans ought to be considered quite fast, but in these days it’s not fast enough. We want things faster, faster, faster! We feel like we’re owed that speed, that any delays are nothing short of thefts of our precious time. No one wants to ride the railroad anymore because it’s too slow.

            All along this southbound odyssey,
            The train pulls out of Kankakee
            And rolls along past houses, farms, and fields.
            Passing trains that have no name
            And freight yards full of old black men
            And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

            The train rolls along past ‘houses, farms, and fields;’ other relics of a disappearing way of life. The world is urbanizing, and farms, fields, and even houses are becoming just as obsolete as the train itself.
            ‘Trains that have no name;’ railroads continue to exist, but only in the most flat, utilitarian fashion. The glory days are over; no one cares enough about them to name them. Names are what you give to things you love, that are special. These trains aren’t special; they’re just machines. People can take them or leave them.
            The train then passes two other things that have been discarded; old black men, weary with their long toil, reaching, like the train, the end of their working lives, to be cast off just like the train itself. ‘Rusted automobiles;’ again, once the pinnacle of technology, once marveled at, sought after, and coveted, these are now nothing more than junk. The effort, the desire, the inspiration that led to their creation has come, in the end, to nothing but a pile of rusted metal.
            We then go into the refrain, which we’ll examine last.
            The second verse starts off:    
            Playing cards with the old men in the club car
            Penny-a-point, ain’t no one keepin’ score.
            Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
            Feel the wheels rumbling ‘neith the floor.

            The club car, or lounge car, is where riders can purchase refreshments. Often times, they were one of the more ‘upscale’ regions of the train. The fact that this club car has nothing but old men playing cards is part of the desolation. Not only that, but their games are for such low stakes that they don’t bother even keeping score. Keep in mind that this club car must have known its share of high-rollers; businessmen, gamblers, politicians, the kind of men who would play for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Underlying this fall into poverty is the fact that their passing around a bottle in a paper-bag: a symbol of destitution. The choice wines and liquors are gone now. It’s just the mystery drink shared among the listless and destitute.
            We can imagine that at least some of these old men were once the very same rich and influential passengers who rode the train in triumph, who played those high-stakes games and drank those fine drinks. Now they’re just sad old men going through the motions. Their wealth and power is all gone, just as the power and glory of the train is gone. The trains made possible their rise to power; they rose together, and now they’ve grown old together.
            This is further nuanced by the next part of the verse:

            And the sons of Pullman Porters and the sons of engineers
            Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel.
            Mothers with their babes asleep, rocking to the gentle beat
            And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

            The passengers are the sons of ‘porters’ and ‘engineers:’ the heirs to the great legacy the railroad men built. But the magic is gone. To their fathers, these were “magic carpets made of steel.” They labored over them, sweated over them, perfected them, before finally bequeathing them to their children…who threw them out. They weren’t useful anymore. All the devotion and effort put into the railroad was only so that it could be superseded by something better. Progress, the same desire that gave birth to the railroad, has now killed it. Saturn, the god of time (almost, you might say, the god of progress), has eaten his children, as he always does.
            And now the “mothers with their babes asleep” are riding the trains of their fathers. The interesting thing here is that the babes, unprejudiced by progress, enjoy the train-ride; they are rocked to sleep by the motion of the train. In this, the train is likened to something safe and comfortable. The train is familiar, proven, and to the children who know no better, almost like a kind of crib. It’s the region of our childhoods; the region of innocence when we don’t care about speed or progress, but only about comfort and security. In this we see that the train is still good, still perfectly serviceable, still worthwhile, if only we could see it.
            Now we come to the final verse:

            Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
            Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
            Half-way home, we’ll be there by morning
            Through the Mississippi darkness, rolling down to the sea.

            Nighttime: the end. The close. The train’s sad journey has almost reached its consummation. “We’ll be there by morning,” the words the friend of a dying man might say to comfort him: “Don’t worry; it’s almost over.” They’re rolling down through darkness to the sea; the symbol of death, the great gathering of all the waters. All rivers flow down to the sea, where they vanish forever. The train is rolling down to the sea, taking its appointed route along the river of time to its destined end.

            But 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 songs again, ‘the passengers will please refrain’
            This train has got the disappearing railroad blues.

            As the train’s malaise comes over it, all that it has been and experienced fade together “into a bad dream.” But it still doesn’t know its fate; it hasn’t yet confronted the final fact that its time is over. The conductor ‘sings his songs,’ does his performance again, as he has no doubt done innumerable times before. But this may be the last time. Soon his song will be silent forever, and the railroad as the Pullman Porters, the engineers, and the City of New Orleans itself have known it will disappear.
            And thus we come to the refrain:
            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’
            And I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

            Here the train itself speaks out; the ‘native son’ pleading for recognition, acknowledgement by its parent. “Do you not remember me?” it asks. “Have you forgotten what I once was to you? Why are you turning away from me? I am yours! You made me!” America was once so proud of its railways, its lifeblood, but now it barely notices them. Their time has passed and they are cast off. It’s too late now; the last line is both literal (the distance the train will cover) and symbolic: soon the train will be gone beyond sight and mind; forgotten. 
            Such is the way of progress; of the new, the exciting, and the innovative. Its beauty fades as swiftly as a flower's, and before long it finds itself set aside, put on the shelf, forgotten, while the sons of its creators race on to build their own creations to replace it with. And so goes the endless sad cycle of time: Saturn devouring his children.  

Vivat Christus Rex!

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