Billy Joel, 1982

Who is singing this song? Unemployed steelworker. What is his mood? Angry, hopeless. In what ways does the singer feel betrayed? He trained to follow in his father's footsteps and work at the factory, but now the factory is closed. Who has betrayed him? Teachers; unions; "they," the businesses that own the factories; government. How?

Where else was this happening besides in Allentown or in the steel industry? All heavy manufacturing in the Northeast and Midwest: metals, glass, finished goods. What were some cities especially known for manufacturing? Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, etc. Where have some of the factories gone that used to be in these towns? The South or other countries. Why? Cheaper labor, no unions.

What industries did the United States lose to other countries in the 1980s? Steel, cars. Why? Japan and Europe modernized factories, we didn't; made cheaper steel, better car designs.

What kind of work has taken the place of heavy industry? Service, technology jobs. Why don't these kinds of jobs help unemployed factory workers? They don't have the right skills for the new jobs. What happens to them then? Move where the jobs are, take lower paying unskilled jobs, retrain.

What happened to the cities after heavy manufacturing left? Population decline, young people went elsewhere. What is the "Rust Belt"? The Northeast, Midwest areas where heavy manufacturing used to be. Why don't these cities like this label?

What are they trying to do to survive in the new economy? Attract new business, retain skilled young people.

"Allentown" performed by Billy Joel on The Essential Billy Joel. Sony Music Entertainment, © 2001. Available on iTunes and Spotify.

More information on Billy Joel can be found on his official website. The official video for the song may be viewed on YouTube.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

Billy Joel was born in New York City in 1949, started playing piano at age four, and began performing while still a teenager. His training in classical piano is evident in many of his compositions. Other influences include the music of the Beatles, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding. After some associations with unsuccessful bands, he turned to a solo career in 1971. In 1973 legal and financial problems forced him to leave New York for Los Angeles, where he performed in piano bars under an assumed name.

His career as a lounge pianist provided much of the material for his popular album Piano Man, which was released in 1974. Like Bruce Springsteen, Joel became more famous through his tours and patterned his music after early rock and roll artists with a strong infusion of rhythm and blues.

"Allentown" is from the album Nylon Curtain, released in 1982. Joel's subject matter in this album was "born out of his concern with the 'diminishing horizons' of the American experience" ( Like Mellencamp's songs about Midwest farm issues, "Allentown" deals with economic issues and the impact on the blue collar worker in the steel belt cities of Pennsylvania. The lyrics of this song recount the everyday lives of steelworkers and their families with authentic steel mill sounds heard in the background. During Joel's national tour in the early 1980s, the people of Allentown were so disappointed not to be included in the itinerary that they launched a campaign of public protest. Joel finally relented and the highlight of the concert was his rendition of this song.

Allentown, PA, wants Joel concert

An article about Allentown trying to get a Joel concert, Austin American-Statesman, Austin, Texas, September 24, 1982.



Creative Commons License
Voices Across Time is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at