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Allentown

by

Billy Joel



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

Allentown is a town in Northeast Pennsylvania about 45 minutes away from the Pocono mountains. An industrial town, many of the once-thriving factories and mills had fallen on hard times when Joel wrote the song, and unemployment in the area was at an all-time high of 12%.

Also mentioned in the song is nearby Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, whose main employer, Bethlehem Steel, had been closing operations. Joel sings about the unemployed workers in the line, "Out in Bethlehem they're killing time, filling out forms, standing in line."
Billy Joel did not grow up in Allentown - he grew up in Levittown, on Long Island. In an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, he compared Allentown with his hometown while he was growing up, noting the similarities. Joel stated that the original title was "Levittown," and the original lyrics seemed kind of bland, and he felt that they would possibly be considered boring to the listeners. Some of the original lyrics included lines like, "Well we're living here in Levittown. And there's really not much going down. I don't see much when I look around. The grass is green, the trees are brown. And we're living here in Levittown." So, during the time of the upcoming studio sessions for The Nylon Curtain, Billy took a trip to Pennsylvania. It was here that he came up with the idea for new lyrics. At that time, he originally had Bethlehem in mind, but people would suddenly get the impression that the song was religious. The confusion would come from the fact that the place where the birth of Christ was said to have happened was Bethlehem, Israel. It is worth noting that Bethlehem and Allentown are right next to each other. So, he started writing down some lyrics for what later became the song "Allentown." (thanks, Kate - New Bedford, MA and Annabelle - Eugene, OR)
The distinctive chord at the beginning was originally a mistake, but Joel decided he liked the way it sounded and left it in.
The song starts with the blowing of a steam whistle in a factory. This was common in the days of steel mills and lumber companies. Usually, whistles were blown at the beginning of a work day, to summon workers to their duties, to announce shift changes, to call them to their lunch hour at noon, and at the end of a work day, to let them know that it was 5:00 and it was time to go home. Also, when listened to carefully, in the background with the music, one can hear the rhythmic pounding of a pile driver, a machine for delivering repeated blows to the top of a pile for driving it into the ground. The machine consists of a frame which supports and guides a hammer weight, together with a mechanism for raising and dropping the hammer or for driving the hammer by air or steam. (thanks, Annabelle - Eugene, OR)
Joel played a benefit concert in Allentown, Pennsylvania on December 27, 1982 as this song was climbing the charts.
The video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, whose work was all over MTV in their early years, with many videos to his credit by Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and Duran Duran. Billy Joel had little interest in music videos, so he let the directors control them. The "Allentown" video stays true to the song in the sense that we see young men coming back from the war and struggling to find work, but these men are far more shirtless and muscular than you would expect. In I Want My MTV by Craig Marks, Joel said: "It's really gay. There's a shower scene with all these good-looking, muscular young steel workers who are completely bare assed. And then they're all oiled up and twisting valves and knobs. I'd missed this completely when I was doing the video. I just thought it was like The Deer Hunter."
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Comments (36):

Billy Joel refers to the Lehigh Valley as his "bread and butter" way before "Allentown" was a hit... he performed at a small theater (I have a photo of his dressing room )... can anyone name it?
- Lori, Nazareth, PA
This was one of my favorite songs as a 16 year-old growing up in Australia. Go figure! The meaning of the lyrics didn't mean anything to me directly but I often mused about them and could feel the passion behind them.
- Valentino, Melbourne, Australia
Although I no longer live in Allentown I was a resident, born and raised until I was 28 in the great town. What I remember was Mack Truck school trips, Vince's and Zandy's cheesesteaks, Beltsville Lake, Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, the Allentown Fair, Parkland vs. Allen rivalries, old school Dorney Park, Allentown slow pitch softball games (with brawls) and walking to Dorneyville Farmacy and Suburban in S. Whitehall township. I bet most of which aren't possible these days. What a shame....
- Chris, Scottsdale, AZ
@V.Soul: I believe the correct lyrics *are* "Iron and coke." Really. Really. Coke is used as a fuel and as a reducing agent in smelting iron ore in a blast furnace. It is there to reduce the iron oxide (haematite) in order to collect iron.
- James, Chino Hills, CA
I just want to say thank you to whomever was responsible for adding the lyrics. All other sites say, "Iron and Coke"...?! Really. Really. Coke...wow. So, thank you...and also, interesting to read all of the responses. Neat site! Glad I found it. (born in Buffalo)
- V.Soul, Spacecoast, FL
A meaningful song! Love to hear it! At least one person is dead in Allentown, Penn. Another five individuals are missing after a gas explosion and fire. A gas explosion rocked a community at 10:45 p.m. local time Wednesday, Feb. 9. Six houses were destroyed by the still-burning fire. Another 16 homes are horribly damaged. Many people are going to have to live off of payday loans until they can rebuild the damage.
- IsabelaLondon, california, CA
Growing up in Allentown in the 70's thru the 90's I've realized after living elsewhere for 10 years that there's something great about the people, places and attitude of a city that's been thru some seriously tough times. If you listen to the song at face value it's quite apparent that it isn't meant to reflect anything positive about the city. That being said anyone who lived in a PA or NJ blue collar town during those times would agree with every lyric Billy Joal wrote and would be proud of the song because it shows how resilient the people in this part of the country are to be where they are today. Go Trojans!
- Chris, Scottsdale, AZ
I think this is a very catchy song that benefits greatly by evoking real pathos from the portrait it paints of a city struggling to survive amid its crumbling industry.
One part that particularly intrigues me is:
"If something happened on the way to that place/They threw an American flag in our face"
I'm not sure what that means. At first I thought it was an expression of society's disapproval of people who bucked the status quo -- but now I'm not sure. Maybe it's a reference to a call to patriotism in the face of troubles?
Anyone have other thoughts on the phrase?
- Sarah, Sacramento, CA
This song is actually about Bethlehem, but Joel used the name Allentown because he thought the name sounded better in the song. Allentown never had steel mills.
- Erik, Bloomfield Hills, MI
This is my favorite Billy Joel song,I like the sound effects in it.I love the video,too.
- Jennifer Harris, Grand Blanc, MI
He got the key to the town of Allentown for making this. As the mayor presented it to him, he said to the citizens, "don't take s*it from nobody".
- Richard, Somerdale , NJ
It's kinda cool having a song by such a famous guy being about your town... even though I can't relate to it at all, my dad can


And you know, it's not so bad here, we're doing alright without the factory, I think? I don't know much haha
- Colleen, Allentown, PA
I used to live in Pennsylvania for 10 years and I visited Allentown like every week. I love it there and contrary to what many people think, the people of Allentown are honored to have a song about their town.
- James, Paterson, NJ
Might I note that these jobs were not necessarily outsourced by American companies. Bethlehem Steel broke apart due to mismanagement and more importantly competition from overseas. Unfortunately, trade barriers would only drive up the cost of steel bankrupting other American industries. The fact is that the only people who could have saved Bethlehem Steel were the company's executives and it was because of a vacuum of competition that they became so complacent in the first place. If they did try to save the company, however, it may have required ruining the steel worker's way of life anyway. Voting for Barack Obama will only worsen America's economic troubles and ruin more lives in terms of outsourcing. Outsourcing actually creates jobs in new sectors which require more education, but also pay better. Better education and a reorientation of our economy towards more relevant sectors will be the best way to help America and the rest of the world. But in terms of the song, I think its very good. The melancholy of the message manages to shine through quite well.
- Steve, Newark, NJ
I keep coming back to this song. It is honest and painful. I bitterly hate the way American jobs are "outsourced" to other countries, sucking the life out of us, killing our families. It has been going on for 40 years and still goes on today. Personally, I have not been affected this way, but I damn well know how Steelworker families felt when the factories shut down and it makes me mad as hell. So I am voting for Barack Obama because he will punish companies who do what the steel mills did to Pennsylvania and stop the destruction of our lives and jobs.
- Phil, Stillwater, MN
I grew up in Bethlehem, Pa and have to say this song smacks the true lifestyle of living in Bethlehem up to and following the closing of Bethlehem Steel. Many in the area believed it was their birthright to inherit a job from the same mill their fathers had worked. And when the steel mills had their annual 2 week shut down, people flocked down to the Jersey shore for their vacations. How I still remember the orange glow in the sky and the smell of the coke works. Life was good. What most people don't realize, Allentown was going through its share of woes when Mack Trucks began laying off 1000s workers too and shutting down their plants at the same time. This caused a vacuum in the Lehigh Valley. It's taken awhile, but the area is slowly recovering. Technology is now the key word in the Valley. What's left of the steel mills is being converted into a steel museum and a casino.
- Eileen, Bethlehem, PA
Being from souteastern pennsylvania I do not live near any coal mines or steel mills. Although I have traveled to Bethlehem and Allentown many times along with Pittsburgh and I can tell you that much of Bethlehem and Pittsburgh are abandoned steel mills that were once prosperous sources of high paying jobs for the blue collar Pennsylvanian. Now, because of the decline of the steel industry many people are working menial or no jobs. It was guaranteed to my fathers generation (not neccessarily him) that there would be high paying steel jobs to work once graduating from high school.This is where "the Pennsylvania we never found" comes into play; they never got those guaranteed jobs. The town where I went to high school was once a now prosperous farming area and now it is many abandon farms, with few still functioning. This song can be applied to many places in present day PA that were once prosperous places that are now burnt out and poor. It's the sad truth.
- Anthony, West Chester, PA
One of my all-time favorite Billy Joel songs. To me, it's more of a folk song since he sings about economic recession that resulted in the closing of the steel mills.
- Howard, St. Louis Park, MN
Actually all the coal hasn't even been taken from the ground. The coal industry suffered just the same as the steel industry, since the coal bought to fuel the steel mills was no longer bough. Although the coal in Lackawanna and Carbon county was anthracite and mainly bituminous coal was used in smelting.
- Matt, Berwick, PA
my husband lost his job at the Clairton mill in 1982.....for years..he would figure out(to the penny)..how much money he lost by losing this job(he became a bus driver..making one fifth his mill wage)...
and i would have to hear..."if i were still in the mill, i would be retired now..and living the good life"...
these people have no idea..how much pain they caused.to save pennies on the dollar..
so many lost their homes, lived in cars..and committed suicide...the billy joel song..cuts like glass
- BEth, pittsburgh, PA
I've noticed that most of the comments about this song are from people who live in Pennsylvania. I've often wondered about that characteristic sound of the steam whistle in the beginning of the song. If anyone notices that while listening to the song, is that whistle from a steel mill in Allentown? If I go there, is there a chance I might hear it while walking down the street?
- Annabelle, Eugene, OR
Im from Allentown and I dont hear about anyone who dislikes billy joel because this song, in fact many people are honored that such a popular artist has made a song about our city. I looked at my schools year book from the year that the song was released and I saw people holding up Billy Joel t-shirts.
- Guy, Allentown, PA
I love how people not from allentown, or even PA say that people from Allentown hate Billy Joel. His concerts sell out whenever he's around. If anything, the fact that he choose to write a song about our town and it's hardship is touching. The song is more about the post-industrial 1980's in normal areas of the US where manufacturing went overseas. Domonic doesnt even have the timeframe left. This song is about the 80's not the 30's or 40's. If you doubt the validity of this song, drive through bethelehem [about 5 mins from my house] and look at the HUNDREDS of acres of abandoned steel mills. Post WWII residents settled for the American dream, their own home and vacations and the Union and Steel factory just like their parents. But Steel forgot about our town and destroyed its economy until it is now regaining because of more service oriented jobs. THis song is great, and accurate, and wonderful. Thanks
- Ben, Easton, PA
For many people, especially high school graduates, there are few career choices. As the manufacturing jobs go overseas for pennies on the dollar, the careers available to regular people are limited to low pay, low pride jobs. It sucks. And it's not just Allentown, it's the timber towns of the Northwest, the auto manufacturing towns of the midwest, the commercial fishing towns of both coasts, etc, etc. It's a sad day in the US, when the regular people who have been the backbone of this country are thrown out like yesterday's trash. Free trade? We need to rethink our priorities.
- Cliff, Corvallis, OR
I was never really into Billy Joel, I knew the song Allentown, but I never really disected the lyrics. But after doing so I have to say Billy Joel is right on point. Both of my grandfather's worked and retired from the Bethelem Steel. It provided them and my family with a great life. Every weekend I was at the shore with my Grandparents. Then in the early eighties my Uncle who also was employed by the Bethlehem Steel was laid off. The plant in Lebanon, PA closed and the town has never recovered. Men with high school school educations who thought that it was their birthright to earn $25.00/hour at Bethlehem Steel were stuck earning 1/4 that in some meanial job. My uncle, with two small kids and a wife had to move back in with my grandparents, take a job at a candy factory and has been bitter ever since.
- David, Lancaster, PA
I have lived near Allentown all of my life and from what I have gathered people are pretty neurtal about Billy Joel, he's just another artist really. I personaly, however, enjoy his music. The stories my dad has told me about his upbringing and his father sway me to believe that Billy Joel could not have done better with Allentown. My grandfather came home from the war, worked in the mill, vactioned at the Jersey shore, retired, and had to watch the giant he helped build cave in on itself and to never see his son, my father, gain that ideal American job that he once had. Mr. Joel portrays Allentown for what it is, a place of dead dreams.
- Craig, Allentown, PA
I live about 30 minutes from Allentown and Billy Joel is huge around here. It's hard to find someone who doesn't like him. And if everyone in Allentown hated him, why the hell did they give him the key to the city? But he did admit that the song was really about Bethlehem and he just used Allentown because it worked better lyrically.
- Chad, Reading, PA
I have lived and worked in the Lehigh Valley most of my life and I have never heard anyone mention that they hate Billy Joel. In fact I have heard this song used at political rallies.
- Steve, Center Valley , PA
Being from a small town outside of Pittsburgh, once the steel capital of the world, I understand this song. I've never been to Allentown for more than an hour or so, and I've never really looked at the local history although im sure it would be interesting. If this song does not paint an accurate picture of Allentown, it certainly does of the burnt out steel towns in this area. The songs does not imply that the people in the mill town were "losers" but were the unfortunate generation caught between the inudstrial heyday of the massive, all employing steel mills, and of the current era of endless vacant dusty lots that those giant mills once inhabited. Billy Joel says that the people were "waiting here in allentown for the pennslyvania we never found. For promises our futures gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved." Its true. There was a generation still raised on the belief that when they graduated high school there would be a high paying, very beneficial, albeit very tough, job waiting for them at the local steel mill. Unfortunately for these kids, they graduated to find that the mills were no longer hiring. The ones that were lucky enough to be hired lacked seniority when the layoffs came, so they lost the jobs quickly. When the mills began to close, as almost all of them unfailingly did during the 1980's, these kids found that they future that had been guarenteed to the last 3 or 4 generations of their family had been taken from them. They were forced to leave, to move to the sunbelt where the new jobs where. The song does not insult me, even thought my family is all to familiar with its story. Its a tragic observation, not a criticism, of the painful death of another once great Pennsylvania steel town, if not Allentown, then the dozens of others that fit the description.
- Mike, Pittsburgh, PA
I don't so much agree that the people of Allentown do not like Billy Joel. True, I don't live in Allentown, but I do live in the Lehigh Valley, and I believe this does paint a good picture of what some of the people here feel like. But I don't truly believe that's the point - its just the restlessness that everyone feels in a small town where there's really nothing to do. I love Billy...
- Ciardha, northampton, PA
Billy Joel Is not really from Levitown NY hes from Hicksville, NY I know this because I went to Hicksville. This is a common misconception and he only live in a "Levit" style house. In the Hicksville Middle School his intials are carved into the piano rooms closet. He also has a plaque in the Hicksville High School Hall of fame in the lobby, among those who lost their lives in 9-11.
- Anthony, Greenwich, NY
I grew up over the border from Bethlehem in NJ and most people who live in the Lehigh Valley area(Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton)of PA don't feel this song shows a true picture of the area. Billy Joel said on "VH1 Storytellers" that he used play colleges in the area as he was climbing the ladder of the music industry and as he learned about the history of the area, he wrote the song. The Lehigh Valley was a very industrialized area up until 15-20 yrs ago but I've never heard any stories of people being trapped by the steel mills and wasting there life away. It may have been what was most available for the time period but there were other choices for careers. Knowing Billy Joel and as angry as he is as a songwriter, its no surprise that he would portray the Lehigh Valley's residents during the 30's and 40's as angry and disgusted. It's just simply not true.
- Dominic, Sarasota, FL
The overwhelming majority of people in Allentown, PA hate Billy Joel Because of this song. They feel that he portrayed their town as Loserville, USA.
- Alexander, Virginia Beach, VA
Billy Joel admits he wrote the lyrics with Bethlehem, PA in mind, but was afraid that if he called it "Bethlehem", people would think it was a religous song, so he changed the city to nearby Allentown.
- Ken, Louisville, KY
The line "but they've taken all the coal from the ground," is factually innacurate. There was never any coal in the Allentown area. The coal was in Lackawanna County and Carbon County.
- Sally, Shavertown, PA
This song was actually written about bethlehem, PA which is only a few miles outisde allentown. Bethelehem was the big center for steel in the northeast. Bethelehem Steel still stands where it once use to as a museum and monument to the once powerful indutrial sect.
- Scott, Pocono summit, PA
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