Steve Goodman (1948 – 1984) was a talented singer and songwriter that died far too soon. Who knows what great hits he could have penned and performed had he not suffered from leukemia? Ten albums came out while he was alive and seven more came out after his death. Although he did write love songs, he often wrote about more unconventional song material, like baseball, television ads and trains.
His preferred instrument was the guitar, but he would always break a string during concerts. He’d just keep on singing as he put on a new string and pick up playing again. He had a smooth voice, but his folksy and often quirky songs are best known as being performed by other people. This 10 best Steve Goodman song list will focus on just the songs he wrote and not on any of the many songs he covered during his brief career.
# 10 – Go Cubs Go
Steve Goodman was a Chicago native and huge Cubs fan, even though he lived at a time when the team was the laughingstock of baseball. Steve Goodman was commissioned by WGN, the network that showed Cubs games (and is even mentioned in the song.) If Chicago Cubs fans couldn’t root for a winning team, they could at least have a good song. This became played at every home Cubs game when they won from 1984 – 1987, although it enjoyed a resurgence in 2008. Originally only released as a single, it didn’t come out on an album until the release of 1994’s No Big Surprise: Anthology, a compilation album to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Steve Goodman’s death.
# 9 – You Better Get It While You Can (The Ballad of Carl Martin)
This finger-snapping tune is a tribute to bluesman Carl Martin, whom Steve Goodman considered the greatest musician he ever played with. This is mostly a rap (unusual for 1984) with a sung chorus. Since Carl Martin preferred playing the mandolin, a mandolin is featured in the arrangement. Considering that Steve Goodman was battling what would be a losing battle with leukemia at the time, the lyrics are especially poignant, “From the cradle to the crypt is a mighty short trip, so you better get it while you can.” This originally appeared on the 1984 album Santa Anna Winds, which came out after he had died.
# 8 – The 20th Century is Almost Over
You can’t get more folk than writing a song with John Prine. Both of these legends put their heads together to pen this delightfully weird look at life in the late 1970s – such as linoleum floors and learning about the Great Depression from reading the magazine True Confessions. Time seemed to be going faster than in the 1800s. During live performances, Steve Goodman would say that this song was inspired by his car insurance calendar, back when car insurances companies gave you annual trinkets for being a customer. Johnny Cash would do a notable cover version of this. It first appeared as the final track on Steve Goodman’s 1977 album Say It In Private.
# 7 – You Never Even Call Me By My Name
John Prine and Steve Goodman often performed together, so they write songs together. This time around, they decided to parody just about every country song they ever heard. And succeeded. Steve Goodman does a good Hank Williams impersonation here, especially on the word “crying.” Features gems of lyrics like, “You’re the one who always tried’ to change me. And that is why I’ll always stay the same.” Also features Steve Goodman singing instrument parts – which much be heard to be believed. Manages to work trains, mothers and jail in a particularly original way. This originally appeared on Artistic Hair in 1983, but was re-released in 2019.
# 6 – My Old Man
Many artists have written songs about their fathers, but not many artists show the good and bad sides of their dads. It’s an achingly beautiful song, but not too sentimental. “And, oh, the fights we had” he tenderly sings, but then makes us miss his old man just as much as he misses him. Somehow, his old man is also your old man. When he sings, “And I’d give everything I own just to hear what he said when I wasn’t listening”, you do, too. It originally appeared on Steve Goodman’s 1977 album Say It In Private. John Prine would go on to perform this many times, even though he wrote a song for his father, “Paradise.” When it was time for Steve Goodman’s daughter to put out a tribute album in 2006, she called it My Old Man.
# 5 – Talk Backwards
This is a goofy, jazz-flavored song that does just what the tile says – talks backwards. But only at certain times. Much of it is talking forwards, in a scat-like rap. It’s an imaginative song that emphasizes just what a unique songwriter Steve Goodman was. This is yet another gem off of the 1984 album Affordable Art. Unlike most other Steve Goodman songs, the guitar is not prominently featured, but does have a big band.
# 4 – Banana Republics
Jimmy Buffett recorded a few of Steve Goodman’s songs, but this arguably is the best one. It’s smooth yet danceable, with touches of tequila and tourism. Goodman takes a look at Americans in Latin America, those running from the IRS and those buying “secondhand American dreams.” The poetry is exquisite, accompanied by fine harmonies and a flute-heavy accompaniment. Steve Goodman’s version originally appeared on his 1976 album Words We Can Dance To. Jimmy Buffett’s version would appear a year later.
# 3 – A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request
This is a funny song about baseball that’s even funny to people who can’t stand baseball. It’s too bad that Steve Goodman never lived long enough to see the Chicago Cubs do the seemingly impossible by winning the World Series in 2016. It only took 108 years. In that time, there have been a lot of perpetually disappointed yet fanatically devoted Chicago Cubs fans. Steve Goodman was one. After his death, some of his ashes were thrown on Wrigley Field. In some ways, this was more affectionate of a tribute to being a Cubs fan and the Cubs than “Go Cubs Go.” Although performed live since 1981, a studio version did not appear until the final album that came out while he was still alive, 1984’s Affordable Art. The album was reissued in 2019 with a new disc of extras.
# 2 – City of New Orleans
This Steve Goodman composition has been covered so many times, you have to wonder what artists haven’t covered it. Arlo Guthrie’s 1972 version is best known. There’s something about train songs that appeals to even people not all that fond of trains. This one is particularly picturesque, pairing visions of nostalgia with borderline ugly banality. Steve Goodman reportedly got the idea for his best-known song while (surprise, surprise) riding on a real train called City of New Orleans. Steve Goodman’s version, the first version, came out on his 1971 debut album, simply titled Steve Goodman.
# 1 -Vegamatic
Once upon a time, there were very few television programs late at night. There were, however, a lot of ads. Steve Goodman takes the notion of subliminal messages in advertisements to a new level here, where he sings as a man who sleep shops. Those readers of a certain age easily can remember what a Vegematic was, as well as Ginsu knives, telephones with wires and those record compilations from K-Tel. This is one of those songs you hear and remember years later. That’s why it tops our list of 10 best Steve Goodman songs. It originally appeared as a live track on Affordable Art.
Top 10 Steve Goodman Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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