Every so often the world of roots music will deliver an outstanding talent – a Robert Johnson or a Bob Dylan – someone who really makes everyone sit up and take notice, someone you know will be a game-changer. And, every so often, there will be a talent who never quite gets the acknowledgement he/she deserves, someone who might have been a game-changer but who leaves us before the big spotlight can properly illuminate them. One such talent was Steven Benjamin Goodman, an American folk musician and songwriter from Chicago.
Steve Goodman will always be remembered, when he is remembered, as the writer of the great song ‘City of New Orleans’, a song which many still think was written by the man who first recorded it, Arlo Guthrie, and which has been recorded by many other artists since, including Joan Baez, John Denver and Willie Nelson, whose recording in 1985 earned it a Grammy award for best country song. In fact, Steve Goodman wrote a lot of great songs and would, undoubtedly, have written a lot more if he hadn’t died at the tender age of 36.
Born in Chicago on the 25th July 1948, a first son to used car salesman Bud Goodman and his wife Minette, Steve began writing and performing songs as a teenager. Graduating from Maine East High School in Park Ridge, Illinois, in 1965 (a classmate of one Hillary Clinton – whatever happened to her?!) he went on to study at the University of Illinois but left after just one year to pursue a career as a professional musician. It was in 1967, returning to Chicago after a brief time in New York, that Steve Goodman was diagnosed with Leukemia, something he would have to live with throughout his brief recording career.
When he returned to Chicago, Goodman became a regular on the folk circuit around the city, particularly favouring the Earl of Old Town folk club (his first recordings were on the locally produced ‘Gathering at the Earl of Old Town’) and The Dangling Conversation coffeehouse. In 1970 he married Nancy Pruter and would turn to writing and singing advertising jingles to pay the bills now he was a married man, but he continued to play in and around Chicago and would promote his songs to anyone who would listen. Then, in 1971, he finally got a real break. He was booked as the opening act for Kris Kristofferson appearing at a Chicago bar called the Quiet Knight; Kristofferson, being a man who knows a bit about good songwriting, was suitably impressed with Goodman’s performance and introduced him to Paul Anka, who had recently signed to Buddah Records. Anka brought Goodman to New York to record some demos, resulting in Goodman getting his own deal with Buddah.
It was also at the Quiet Knight that Goodman met Arlo Guthrie. The story goes that Goodman asked Guthrie if he could play him a song. Guthrie said he could, as long as he bought him a beer – Guthrie would listen to the song for as long as it took him to drink the beer. The song was, of course, ‘City of New Orleans’ and, by the time Goodman had finished playing it, Guthrie wanted to record it. Much of Goodman’s success came from other people recording his songs, though the arrangements rarely varied much from Goodman’s own versions. ‘City of New Orleans’ has also seen success in French, Dutch and Hebrew versions; Guthrie’s version was a Top 20 U.S hit and was successful enough to allow Goodman to stop writing advertising jingles and to concentrate full time on his own songwriting career. Jimmy Buffet has recorded a number of Goodman songs, including ‘Banana Republics’ and ‘Woman Going Crazy on Caroline Street’. David Allan Coe had a big country hit with Goodman’s ‘You Never Even Called Me By My Name’, co written with his great friend, John Prine. Ironically, Goodman’s biggest recording success came with his cover of another writer’s song, ‘The Dutchman’, written by Michael Peter Smith.
Steve Goodman was always a musician’s musician. His work was always well respected in folk music circles and his own albums were critically well received but often struggled for commercial success. In 1984, at the age of just 36, Steve Goodman finally succumbed to the Leukemia that had been with him throughout his adult life. His wife, Nancy, wrote in the liner notes to ‘No Big Surprise’, his first posthumously released album, “Basically, Steve was exactly who he appeared to be: an ambitious, well-adjusted man from a loving, middle-class Jewish home in the Chicago suburbs, whose life and talent were directed by the physical pain and time constraints of a fatal disease which he kept at bay, at times, seemingly by willpower alone . . . Steve wanted to live as normal a life as possible, only he had to live it as fast as he could . . . He extracted meaning from the mundane”.
Goodman recorded just two albums for Buddah records and a further five for the Asylum label. His last two albums, ‘Artistic Hair’ and ‘Affordable Art’ were recorded for his own Red Pyjamas label, a label that has been kept alive by John Prine and is used to release posthumous Goodman material and tribute recordings. In many ways the music of Steve Goodman lives on through his friendship with Prine; originally Goodman acted as mentor to the younger Prine but they developed a strong friendship and often worked together. We can only imagine what they might have gone on to achieve if they’d continued to collaborate, just as we can only speculate on the songs Goodman might have written later in life. For those that have never really listened to Goodman, his eponymous debut album is a great place to start. It includes ‘City of New Orleans’ along with other great Goodman songs such as ‘You Never Even Call Me By My Name’, ‘Eight Ball Blues’, ‘Election Year Rag’ and, personal favourite, ‘Would You Like to Learn to Dance’. It also boasts guest appearances from the likes of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Charlie McCoy – artists who didn’t turn out for just anyone, especially back in the early ’70s.
If you like singer/songwriters who write about real life, who don’t just want to bear their soul but want to sing about everyday things and observe the world around them, take some time to listen to the songs of Steve Goodman – and remember an artist who died too soon but shone brightly for the time he was with us.