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Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "Allentown"

I suppose if I'm going to share a thoughtful bit of pop songwriting that pays tribute to the struggles faced by America's farmers, then I ought to do the same for a song that focuses on America's Rust Belt workers as well. Billy Joel doesn't have any more of an authentic understanding of the history and troubles of the steelworkers of Allentown and Bethlehem, PA, than Don Henley did of the farmers of Des Moines or Omaha, but that doesn't mean the story he tells is false or meaningless. Quite the contrary, in fact.

This comes off of Joel's 1982 album The Nylon Curtain: probably his most ambitious recording ever, certainly the one where he tried his hardest to achieve some sort of Beatlesesque mix of pop craftsmanship, socially conscious lyrics, and rock and roll experimentation. Some find it pretentious, a reminder that Joel might have been a more respected pop artist--and maybe just plain a happier person--if he'd been born ten years earlier and had been able to start his career cranking out Brill Building hits in the 1960s along with Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Bobby Hart. Perhaps; I can't say I'm his greatest fan. But still, he's written some fine stories to go along with his excellent tunes over the years, and I say this is one of his best.

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 at 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,
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.
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 it's getting very hard to stay....
And we're living here in Allentown.

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