The Man And The Music Behind The Baseball Ballad “Go Cubs Go”

Folk singer Steve Goodman grew up going to Cubs games, and this diehard fan had a lifelong goal—to write a hit song about baseball.

Go Cubs Go on Wrigley Field with music notes
Mackenzie Crosson / WBEZ
Go Cubs Go on Wrigley Field with music notes
Mackenzie Crosson / WBEZ

The Man And The Music Behind The Baseball Ballad “Go Cubs Go”

Folk singer Steve Goodman grew up going to Cubs games, and this diehard fan had a lifelong goal—to write a hit song about baseball.

After being delayed because of the pandemic, baseball season is finally underway. And that means Chicago Cubs fans will once again be singing “Go Cubs Go,” written in 1984 by songwriter Steve Goodman.

In this week’s podcast, Curious City looks back at Goodman’s life- he would have turned 72 this week. During the 1970s and 80s Goodman was an important part of the American folk music scene, writing songs that would become hits like “City of New Orleans” recorded by Arlo Guthrie and “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” a country music hit recorded by David Allan Coe. Although Goodman made a decent living as a musician, he struggled to write and record his own hit song.

Growing up as a die hard Cubs fan, Goodman dreamed of recording a hit song about baseball. “Go Cubs Go” is his best known song, but he likely wouldn’t have written it if he hadn’t already written another song about the Cubs in 1981: “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” The Cubs were not initially fond of that baseball song—which poked fun at the team’s tendency to lose. So Goodman wrote “Go Cubs Go” to get back into their good graces. The song became a hit but Goodman didn’t live long enough to experience it. Ater undergoing treatment for leukemia for 15 years, he died in 1984 at the age of 36.

Steve Goodman’s biographer, Clay Eals, said that even though both songs are very different, they’re also deeply connected. “They are akin to soup and sandwich, inseparable in capturing and absorbing the all-too-brief spirit and soul of Steve Goodman,” Eals wrote in an email.

So with help from Eals, Curious City put together a playlist that shows the influences and evolution of Goodman’s two baseball songs—one of which is still sung after every Cubs victory.

“In The Streets Of Laredo” by Bradley Kincaid

Bradley Kincaid’s 1929 performance of “In The Streets Of Laredo” is one of hundreds of performances of this song that can be traced back to a traditional British Isles folk song from the 1700s. Goodman biographer Clay Eals points out “A Dying Cub Fan” follows a folk, blues and Irish ballad tradition of songs in which the narrator lays dying and describes the sort of funeral he wishes to have to friends or onlookers.

“Take Me Out To The Ballgame” by Edward Meeker

Edward Meeker was one of the first musicians to record this song in 1908, written by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer that same year. Neither Norworth or Von Tilzer had ever been to a baseball game before they wrote this song . The original version includes a verse largely forgotten by today’s audiences, who still routinely sing the song at baseball games, commonly during the seventh-inning stretch. Goodman loved this song and included an uptempo version on his 1983 album Affordable Art.

“Bo Diddleyby Bo Diddley

This song became a hit in 1955, when Goodman was seven years old, and introduced the catchy “Bo Diddley beat” to America. The beat’s origins can be traced to pre-colonial West Africa, and when Goodman wrote “Go Cubs Go,” he interpolated the Bo Diddley beat to make the song snappier.

“Talkin’ World War III Blues” by Bob Dylan

Folk singer Woody Guthrie and others popularized the “talking blues” song, in which the narrator half sings, half talks for most or all of the song. Bob Dylan revived the genre in the 1960s, adding humor and surrealism, both of which Goodman’s “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” employ, biographer Clay Eals said.

“Let’s Go Go-Go White Sox” by Captain Stubby and the Buccaneers

While Goodman was a die hard Cubs fan, he also cheered the White Sox’s 1959 pennant winning season, when they unveiled a new fight song. It was co-written by Chicago polka legend Li’l Wally Jagiello and continues to be played at White Sox games. Can the resonance between the phrase “Go Cubs Go” and “Go Go-Go White Sox” simply be coincidence?

“What Have You Done For Me Lately” by Steve Goodman

“A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” which Goodman wrote in 1981, shows his ability to integrate all kinds of musical styles into his performances and songwriting. Throughout his career, Goodman wrote songs that invoke early blues, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley American songwriting. “What Have You Done For Me Lately” is one of dozens of songs that showcases Goodman’s knowledge and comfort with earlier musical forms.

“When The Cubs Go Marching In” by Steve Goodman

As early as 1978, Goodman was already using the Cubs as inspiration, in this case adopting the melody and structure of the old spiritual tune “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Goodman improvises verses about various members of the Cubs lineup, and humorously alludes to their propensity to lose—themes he revisits in 1983 when he finishes “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

Be sure to listen to the whole playlist here. And we’re calling on all Steve Goodman and Cubs fans: What’s your favorite song about baseball? Think we missed a song that was an important influence on Goodman? Email us at curiouscity@wbez.org or tweet us with your recommendations @WBEZCuriousCity.

Special thanks to question asker Nick Brunner for inspiring this week’s story.

Jesse Dukes is an audio producer for WBEZ. Follow him @CuriousDukes.