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
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A steel factory in Allentown
Billy Joel is, first of all, a story-teller. No, wait - he's better than that; he's a bard. He is singlehandedly carrying on the oral tradition of telling rich stories, which he just happens to set to music. If Billy Joel wrote your life story into a song, you'd want it played at your funeral.
He's also a down-to-Earth kind of guy. When the city of Allentown finally did award him with recognition for the song "Allentown," his response was, "I just wrote a song. I'm not Thomas Edison. Let's not blow it all out of proportion." And at the end of the show he just says, "Don't take any s--t from anybody." Now, see? He's blue-collar just like us.
Allentown, Pennsylvania, is a bustling metropolis with a population of about 100,000. It's in the east end of Pennsylvania, so even though it doesn't qualify as New England, it's only a short hop there and so it shares some of its culture. It's the typical East Coast city where you can find streets lined with Victorian/Edwardian rowhouses. It also has a cornerstone position in American history, for 'twas here, and nowhere else, that the Liberty Bell was hidden so the British couldn't swipe it and melt it down for cannon fodder. Under the floorboards of the Zion's Reformed Church(!)
Getting to the point of Billy Joel's "Allentown," the city was once highly dependent on manufacturing for its economy. This was fortified by iron and steel mills as well as the railroad industry, as is typical for a state known for its mineral wealth. But by the early 20th century, mines were closing down and factories were packing up and leaving, which temporarily left the town kind of light in the pockets.
No need to worry; they currently aren't doing any worse than any other United States city. Now that all of our goods are made in China and all of our brains go to other countries to develop technology and study science, Allentown is now just like the rest of the United States: a nation of clerks, lawyers, and politicians. Ha ha! The joke's on them.
Allentown in the old days
Thanks, Allentown Historical Society
Nevertheless, "Allentown" ruffled a few feathers in its namesake when it hit #17 in the US charts in 1982. It was thought that Joel was writing a song about the troubles of a town he'd never lived in, and who asked this uppity New Yorker what he thinks, anyway? But they got over it by the time he dropped by their town for a concert, and the mayor awarded him the recognition, saying it was "a gritty song for a gritty city," and how the song recognized that the city was "a city of strong, hardworking people who face their problems."
Which, really, is the message of the song, after all. It's peppy and upbeat. The last verse even says, "it's hard to keep a good man down." Sure enough, Allentown is still there, new jobs and opportunities have opened up, and everybody is just fine living there, thank you very much.
The ironic part is that this song wasn't originally written for them. Originally, it was supposed to be about the Long Island city of Levittown, but he never could get the thing to play right. He salvaged the tune, like any good creative artist, and recycled it into something that would work better. That's right, Allentown, on top of everything else - you got a retread.
(See more about Allentown, Pennsylvania at Discover Lehigh Valley
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