Arlo Guthrie first got the idea to help the struggling musicians of New Orleans from the memory of losing his Florida home to a hurricane a couple of years ago.
“It took me about a year and a truckload of paperwork to find out that I wasn’t gonna get any help from FEMA or the SBA or any of these big outfits,” he told CMT.com. “So I realized as this thing was unfolding in New Orleans that a lot of people are gonna be permanently disappointed in the aftermath. I decided that I needed to do something more than sending in money to the Red Cross.”
The second factor in his decision was a recent attempt in Congress to limit funding for some of Amtrak’s historic railroad runs, such as the City of New Orleans train.
“I thought, ‘Did any of these guys [in Congress] watch TV after 9/11, when all the planes were grounded and all the car traffic was snarled on the highways?’” he said. “The only thing moving was trains. Moving people and goods and services. This is not the time to be debating the profitability of trains.”
Another factor came as he watched television coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
“On the third or fourth day, I saw a little scroll across the bottom of the screen,” he said. “It said that Amtrak was resuming service of the City of New Orleans train, and it occurred to me that this was a great opportunity for Amtrak to show how relevant it is.
“I was also thinking that there are a lot of things that make a city work. In New Orleans, it’s the music that really gives the culture a voice. It’s the musicians. And I’ve got my own venue up here [in Massachusetts]. It’s the old church where we filmed the movie Alice’s Restaurant. I just tried to imagine what it would be like under 20 foot of water. All of the stuff that is not insurable. I thought … that is what we need to do! We need to get instruments and gear and get it into those clubs and venues and into the hands of the people who make the music. And I realized that that train is just the right symbol to do it.”
Guthrie said he sent a short, exploratory e-mail to friends and family asking what everyone thought about the idea. He was swamped with replies, he said, including a phone call from Willie Nelson and an e-mail from Richard Pryor. “Everyone was saying, ‘What can I do?’” he said.
The result is a fundraising and instrument-and-gear-collecting train trip on the old City of New Orleans train which has long made the run between Chicago and New Orleans. Guthrie’s hit recording of the Steve Goodman song, “City of New Orleans,” prompted Amtrak to bring that name back for the train in 1981 after a 10-year absence.
The train will make overnight stops along the way to allow fundraising concerts. The tour begins Monday (Dec. 5) at the Vic Theatre in Chicago and continues this week with shows Wednesday at Lincoln Cultural Center in Kankakee, Ill., and Saturday at the Canopy Club in Champaign, Ill. Other stops include Sunday (Dec. 11) at the Keller Convention Center in Effingham, Ill., Dec. 12 at the Copper Dragon in Carbondale, Ill., and Dec. 13 at the New Daisy in Memphis, before closing and Dec. 17 at Tipitina’s in New Orleans.
Artists joining Guthrie along the way include his son Abe with his band, Xavier; daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie with Johnny Irion; Guy Davis, Ramsay Midwood, Kevn Kinney with Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, John Flynn and the Burns Sisters. Cyril Neville will perform at the shows in Chicago and Kankakee, Todd Snider will join the troupe in Memphis, and Nelson and his longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, will be at the final show in New Orleans.
Amtrak is a joint partner in the venture. “Passenger trains have always carried the music and the musicians to and from the Delta, spreading the sound of the Crescent City to Memphis, Chicago and the world,” William L. Crosbie, Amtrak senior vice president of operations, said in a statement. “We are honored to receive Arlo’s request and excited about helping this important rebuilding effort with today’s Amtrak City of New Orleans train.”
Besides Amtrak, Gibson Guitar is partnering with instrument donations and tour support. Other partners include MusiCares and the Tipitina’s Foundation.
“Arlo is synonymous with some of the world’s greatest music of our time, so it makes sense to support him on this tour which will restore the music and the spirit of the city,” Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar, said in a statement.
Financial donations can be sent to the Guthrie Foundation Inc. via its Web site www.guthriefoundation.com and to 10741 U.S. Highway 1, Sebastian, FL 32958.