I have always been an early riser. No matter how late I turned in the night before, my body is incapable of staying in bed past 7:30 AM and anything beyond a quarter past six is spent in a state of fidgety restlessness. These behaviors have persisted despite a lifetime spent in the company of folks who would snooze until noon if given the chance, but I’ve come to enjoy that daybreak oasis of quiet solitude. It gives me the chance a take stock of my mental and physical condition, and meditate upon the overall state of things.
When I was young child, my mother used this to impart lessons of self-sufficiency via self-interest. Give a kid some breakfast, and you can go back to be for three hours. Teach him to make his own, and you won’t need to get up at all. Besides laying out a bowl, spoon, and a box of the currently preferred sugar-blasted cereal, my mom also wrote out a kid-centric summary of the local TV listings (with numeric and clock-hand pictogram timestamps) with my known favorites bolded in marker.
“7 AM: Scooby Doo (38), Sesame Street (2), Mighty Mouse (56)” — and so forth. (I really wish I’d managed to hold on to one of these through the years.)
This was back before the broadcast day was expanded into a 24/7 affair. On most weekday mornings, my televised companion during my first bowl-and-a-half of Alpha Bits was a test pattern accompanied by a stream of AM Gold standards of Me Decade. Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” was prominent in the mix with MECO’s disco do-over of the Star Wars theme and Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” — songs that stuck in memory because of parental affection or personal fandom or dumb kid jokes.
Most of the tunes unspooled while I was distracted with stuffing my gob or playing with plastic army men or flipping through some picture book on aquatic life. There was one song, however, that would make me stop what I was doing and take notice…
…Arlo Guthrie’s rendition of “The City of New Orleans.”
The song’s subject matter (trains, which were up there with sea life and warships as a childhood obsession of mine) and its warm yet melancholy tone resonated strongly with the streak of sentimentality no amount of performative cynicism has managed to fully erase. It offered a glimpse at a bigger — and vanishing — world to a kid whose horizons began and ended within a couple miles of a single-road access North Woburn neighborhood.
The strange synchronicity between the “good morning, America, how are ya” refrain and being the sole person in the house (and probably the block) up at 5:30 AM further enhanced the experience. It’s a difficult thing to articulate and no amount of technical dissection can sufficiently explain that powerful alignment between material, moment, and mood. A few degrees difference along any of those axes and that deeply personal flash of transcendence might’ve just been “oh, yeah, I remember that song.”
I bought the single of “The City of New Orleans” because the asking price was low and the song holds a strong personal significance. That same resonance makes it difficult to listen to outside of rare occasions, lest the psychic weight of it squash me flat.