Billy Joel and “Allentown”


In 1982, recording artist Billy Joel released a single titled “Allentown” The song painted a picture of a depressed American economy and the decline of the US as a world economic power, through the eyes of a single city crippled by the disappearance of its manufacturing industries.

Allentown PA                                                                                                                  photo from Wiki Commons

At the end of the Second World War, much of the world lay in ruins. The major cities in Europe and Asia had been bombed into ruins, industrial capacity had been destroyed, and the economy was shattered. Years of reconstruction lay ahead.

But one major power had escaped the destruction. No enemy bombers had reached the United States; its factories and industries were intact. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the US became an economic superpower, as rising wages, increasing purchasing power, and continuously-expanding industrial output turned America into the most powerful economy in human history. US products and consumer culture dominated the entire world.

That began to change in the 1970’s, as Europe and Asia began to recover from the devastation of World War II. Former enemies in Germany and Japan (now allies) finally reached and then exceeded their pre-war economic levels. In one industry after another, including steel, electronics, automobiles, and chemicals, Japanese and German companies first pushed American companies out of their dominating global market share, and then invaded the US itself, capturing an ever-larger share of the American consumer economy.

The effect in the US was crushing. As the American economy became mired in “stagflation”, major companies like Bethlehem Steel, Zenith, and General Motors began losing ground to newer, more modernized and more efficient companies like Nippon Steel, BMW, Toyota, and Panasonic. In a desperate attempt to stay in the game, American companies began extracting “give-backs” from their worker unions, forcing deep cuts in wages and benefits in exchange for promises to not close the plants (promises that were usually un-kept). “Runaway factories” left the US in droves for low-wage havens in Mexico, then in China. In the US, once-powerful labor unions disappeared as plants closed and workers were laid off, and unemployment rose to levels not seen since the 30’s. Economists began to talk about a permanent “post-industrial economy”, in which low-wage non-union “service-sector” jobs would be the new norm. Throughout the Northeast, the collection of now-closed and empty factories that dotted the landscape became known as “The Rust Belt”.

Singer-songwriter Billy Joel had already reached the top of the charts with his hit album “The Stranger”. For his next album, “The Nylon Curtain”, he wanted to do a song about the decline of American manufacturing and the economic ruin it was leaving behind. At first, he centered the song around Levittown, the company-owned industrial city in New York that Joel had grown up near. “Well we’re living here in Levittown, and I don’t see much going down”, the lyrics began. But although he worked out a musical chord progression that he liked, Joel couldn’t make the lyrics fall into place. At heart, Billy Joel was a story-teller, and he couldn’t see a good interesting story here, and thought his lyrics would be “boring”. He set the song aside.

Then a few years later in 1981, while preparing to record “The Nylon Curtain”, he took a trip to the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, which contained the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, and became interested in the history of the steel industry and the problems it was currently facing. That gave him the story he wanted to tell. Although the steel industry was centered in Bethlehem, Joel thought that “Allentown” sounded better in the lyrics and was easier to rhyme. (He also concluded that people would think that a song about “Bethlehem” was a Christmas song.) And so the lyrics for “Levittown” became re-worked into “Allentown”. As he explained later, “It sounds like Jimmytown, Bobbyburgh, Anytown. It just sounds real American.”

The song, over an acoustic background of steam whistles, factory machinery and industrial hammers, paints a picture of a place where the factories are shut down and the former workers are standing in lines and filling out forms at the unemployment office. Their fathers had fought World War Two and then built the most prosperous economy in the world, and their sons had assumed that their jobs at the steel mills would give them at least that same standard of living. Instead, their factories had closed, their jobs were gone, and they were left with nothing. “Allentown”, Joel noted, “is a metaphor for America.”

When the album and single were released in 1982, the Mayor of Allentown PA was Joe Dadonna, a colorful local character who had the difficult job of promoting the image of his city during the worst economic crisis of its history. While many locals viewed “Allentown” as a put-down of their declining city, Mayor Dadonna saw it as an opportunity for some publicity and promotion. He wrote a letter to Joel (and helpfully provided copies to the press) inviting him to do a concert in Allentown, and asking him to donate a portion of his royalties towards a scholarship for music students in the city.

Joel politely declined to set up a scholarship fund, explaining that he only worked with charities in his hometown of Levittown, but he did add Allentown to his tour schedule. In a fitting irony, the 1983 concert had to be held in nearby Bethlehem, because Allentown had no show arena. Joel closed the show with “Allentown”, was given a standing ovation, and was then presented with honorary residence and a key to the city by Dadonna, who told him he had written “a gritty song about a gritty city”. Joel modestly replied  “I just wrote a song, I’m not Thomas Edison. Let’s not blow it all out of proportion.”

The story of “Allentown” is of particular interest to me, since I was born there, grew up there, and spent almost 40 years there (working for a time in the Bethlehem Steel Company’s mailroom) before leaving. The area is still a rusted-out economic cesspit where the best hope for the future is working a shit job in one of Amazon.Com’s warehouses, and the old Bethlehem Steel Mill is now the site of a gambling casino–a wonderfully symbolic bit of irony.

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