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Looking at the Back Story of Billy Joel’s Iconic Song “Allentown”

Welcome to #SongLyricsSunday! Today’s prompt is about find a song with “State, County, City, or Town” in the title or the lyrics. One of my favorite songs from the 80s (and I have liked a lot) is a really well-known one: “Allentown” by Billy Joel from the album The Nylon Curtain. I love this song so much because of how it narratives the decline of the American manufacturing industry in the late 20th Century. Let’s explore the song and its context down below.

Well, We’re Living Here in Allentown

Billy Joel
1982 The Nylon Curtain – Billy Joel (L.P Japan CBS Sony 30AP 2401)

“Allentown” was released as a single in the fall of 1982. It talked about the decline of the American manufacturing industry through the narrative of the depressed livelihood of the residents living in Bethelem, Pennsylvania during Bethlehem Steel’s decline and eventual closure. Joel was hoping that this song would give hope to the unemployed steelworkers, even though the lyric told a sad tale. But, it wasn’t originally titled “Allentown”. Instead, the original name was “Levittown” which is the name of Billy Joel’s hometown in Long Island.

As Joel was writing the song, he found it hard to write lyrics to “Levittown”. He then remembered reading about the troubles in Leigh Valley, where Allentown and Bethlehem were located. He began to re-work the song’s lyrics based on what he read but also his trips to Pennsylvania during the studio sessions for the album The Nylon Curtain. The song then became “Allentown” for two reasons: 1) Joel could find better rhymes with “Allentown” and 2) that he didn’t want to name the song “Bethlehem” as he thought that listeners might think the song is about religion.

However, the original inspiration from Joel’s original hometown wasn’t completely scraped. Instead, Joel found a way to based the song on his experiences with his hometown and with the Leigh Valley, writing about the similarities both places shared in “Allentown”. But the tune also features things that you could only find in Allentown: the steam whistle from the factory and the” introductory rhythm of the song is reminiscent of the sound of a rolling mill converting steel ingots into I-beams or other shapes”.[1]

Like I said above, “Allentown” is one of my favorite Joel songs because I love how it relates to the Rust Belt and the problems that the area struggled with during the 80s: hard-working Americans losing their work and now without a future as they were promised longtime employment in the manufacturing industry. The issue is still a hot one as recent presidents used the Rust Belt to gain votes with promises of revitalizing the manufacturing industry.

Yet, how Joel combines the lyrics to the catchy beat to make “Allentown” a memorable tune is really remarkable. I really love how blend the rock beat with the sounds of Pennsylvania (which is nostalgic for me as I took trips to Pennslyvania as it was right next to Maryland, my home state).

And It’s Hard to Keep a Good Man Down

Funny thing is that after this song was released, the actual mayor of Allentown wanted Billy Joel to give the song royalties to the town. The mayor said it would help to fund a scholarship to future musicians. He failed to procure any agreement as Joel’s manager told the mayor that the musician ran his own charity. [2]

Also, when Joel performed this song in Leningrad in 1987, he drew similarities between plight of the citizens of Allentown and the plight of Soviet youth by saying this:

This song is about young people living in the Northeast of America. Their lives are miserable because the steel factories are closing down. They desperately want to leave… but they stay because they were brought up to believe that things were going to get better. Maybe that sounds familiar.”

What do you think about Billy Joel’s “Allentown”? Listen to the song below and let me know what you think the comments!

Fun fact;: The music video was directed by Russell Mulcahy and featuring choreography by Kenny Ortega (aka the guy who I know as the one who made The High School Musical movies.)

Lyrics for “Allentown”

Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we’re living here in Allentown

But the restlessness was handed down
And it’s getting very hard to stay

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel
And we’re waiting here in Allentown

But they’ve taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away

Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Well I’m living here in Allentown
And it’s hard to keep a good man down
But I won’t be getting up today

And we’re living here in Allentown

The Rules for #SongLyricsSunday

(This challenge is currently hosted by the generous Jim Adams.)

Anyone can participate in #SongLyricsSunday, even if you aren’t a music blogger! If you want to participate, here are the rules:

  • Post the lyrics to the song of your choice, whether it fits the theme or not.
  • Please try to include the songwriter(s) – it’s a good idea to give credit where credit is due.
  • Make sure you also credit the singer/band and if you desire you can provide a link to where you found the lyrics.
  • Link to the YouTube video, or pull it into your post so others can listen to the song.
  • Pingback to this post will eventually work, as long as you are being patient, but you can also place your link in the comments if you don’t like to wait.
  • Read at least one other person’s blog, so we can all share new and fantastic music and create amazing new blogging friends in the process.
  • Feel free to suggest future prompts.
  • Have fun and enjoy the music.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Jim Adams

    The US made a big mistake after WW2 by building up Japan and I guess we felt bad for them because we dropped two atomic bombs on them. Our steel industry suffered, because our plants were falling apart and japan had all new ones ang they were able to produce better steel that was cheaper.

  2. Ivan Jose

    The lyrics are completely relatable for me. There are days when I felt like migrating somewhere better but we were taught to love our country and our parents and family so I shouldn’t just think of myself.

  3. Dominique

    I remember this song but I didn’t know the history behind it. This type of thing has happened to many cities in the US. Joel’s song still rings true today!

  4. Knycx Journeying

    A great choice of Billy Joel and I like this too! Thanks for bringing this song back to my playlist and it has such deep meanings. – Knycx Journeying

  5. alita pacio

    I really love the lyrics of the song! His experiences with his hometown are relatable. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Marc Ibarra

    It looks a great song and the lyrics are good. hopefully I can listen this.

  7. Candle

    This is a great article. It brings to light how songs are written about things going on in the world are no longer popular. Now songs are made for TikTok and parties.

  8. I did not know the story behind Allentown. I am a big Billy Joel fan because of my mother, but I never thought to look up the backstory to his songs.

  9. My Kitchen

    I love the lyrics, I literally rapped to this. Lol.
    The major was ridiculous for asking an artist to give a song loyalties to the town. Like he worked for the song’s success, so let him do what he wants with his loyalties.

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