Episode-819- Billy Joel’s Allentown – History Lesson, Prophecy or Both

Today we are going to do something completely different and look at the old Billy Joel hit from 1982, “Allentown”.  My hope is after you hear today’s show you will fully understand what I mean when I say, “history, prophecy or both” in regard to the song.

Join me today as we discuss…

  • What “closing the factories down” was actually like
  • Why unemployment was a national problem but worse in the coal and steel regions
  • What the song means when talks about “weekends at the Jersey shore”
  • The “restlessness” that was handed down
  • “Graduations hang on the wall” today they are college degrees vs. high school diplomas
  • The multiple broken promises that generation experienced
  • What “filling out forms, standing in lines” means to us today
  • What “hard to stay” is really all about
  • The true nature of the WWII generation post war prosperity
  • How “one word plastics” from the movie “The Graduate” relates to this song
  • What “the threw and American flag in our face” was all about
  • How the “flag in the face” relates to today
  • How this song is really about one of the massive shifts in the world
  • How this generation got caught in this shift
  • Some of the other massive shifts on the past 200 years
  • The real nature of the current shift

Lyrics of the Song Allentown

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

 Resources for Today’s Show

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53 Responses to Episode-819- Billy Joel’s Allentown – History Lesson, Prophecy or Both

  1. Great show, Jack. I grew up in NJ drive through that area on I-78 everytime I go to visit family. You were so spot on. That mentality covered the entire tri-state area. It’s the work hard and stay with the company for 30 years and retire desire. I understood that song long ago but everytime I hear it I think of the factories through Bethleham area and Allentown and how the place has a defeated atmosphere. Thanks for the podcast!

  2. Man I do love these early shows! I’m up at 4am PST Not even 6 and I have my inside domestics done for the day!!! We are 50 or will be in June of this year. Were raised with that mentality work in a factory boys office girls. You will be lucky if you don’t have an outside job.

    Once hubby got out of the USAF he got on at Boeing 21 yrs ago. His parents thought no problem now he can get every body a job there. Boeing is a good job how ever new hires are making less than what hubby did when he hired on 21 yrs ago! We were also preached to (by hubby’s parents)get a good education and “acquiring debit that is the only way you will amount to or have any thing”.

    My grandpa on the other hand always said NEVER barrow money make more if you need more. Work for yourself invent something new. Don’t farm unless you can pay cash for the land and have another income “You just can’t depend on farming any more”. College is for Dr’s & Lawyers and only there for training to make money. If you really want to make it you have to “learn how money really works”. Then “learn how the politicians play their game so you can stand half a chance to beat them at their own game”. Amazing the difference in one generation.

    I loved the milk man. Was in the 4th grade when he stopped coming. We would sneak out to the milk box and add chocolate milk to the order. Get home from school before mom got home from work and suck it down. We were so clever or so we thought. Boy would we get in trouble for that when the bill came.

  3. The Tennessee Prepper

    Jack great show, didn’t realize how good the past generations were compared to today.
    Also, I hate to post this here but I registered for the forum , but never have gotter the activation email. I must have put in the wrong email address. Could you please put me in contact witg a forum administrator?
    Thanks,

    The Tennessee Prepper

    • Modern Survival

      @TTP, just email me the username you selected and I will see if I can unclog the works for you.

  4. Great show, Jack. I really appreciate the spin you put on things that I thought I already understood. It helps to flesh out my understanding even more. Thanks!

  5. Great show Jack! I haven’t heard that song in awhile. Definately puts things in perspective. Another song (and possibly other songs on the album) that I think of often listening to you shows is “Rain on the Scarecrow” by John Mellencamp.
    “Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn
    Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm
    I grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa cleared this land
    When I was five, I walked a fence while grandpa held my hand

    Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
    This land fed a nation, this land made me proud
    And son, I’m just sorry, there’s no legacy for you now
    Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow”
    Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow

    • Yes! Definitely, yes!
      My only regret is, I can only click the thumbs up button for your post once.

    • When I saw the topic of today’s podcast one of my first thoughts was “Jack needs to do the same analysis to Rain on the Scarecrow”. My family lived through the situations given in that song and it never fails to bring me to tears whenever I hear it.

    • Ryan Lewellin

      That song crossed my mind during this podcast too – good call.

  6. Great show. I have that song on cassette (his live USSR tour). I remember my neighbor having milk delivered back as a kid in the 70′s ( 75-76, I was 7-8), and the jokes of kids that looked like the milkman (was also delivered at 4 or 5am).

  7. Jack, I just word that Billy Joel has contacted the military SOPA police and they are enroute here now to seize my home and put me in a fema camp where they plan to kill me with flu shots.

    Good luck with the show, I’ve enjoyed listening. Mike

    ( PS. Please bring some of Keith Snow’s spices with that fresh trout you promised. )

  8. Hey Jack,
    I’m getting your updates via e-mail that you’ve made the updates here but the show doesn’t populate in iTunes (at least mobile wise) for several more hours. Any idea on this?
    Thanks!
    JW

    • Modern Survival

      @JokersWild,

      That is just how iTunes works, nothing I can do about it on my end. The show is usually live on iTunes if you are using it on the desktop in about 5 minutes but takes a LOT longer to show up on mobile.

  9. Great show, great insight into what that song is really about.

  10. @Jack,

    Hearing you recount what these young kids in the Vietnam Era went through makes me want to cry. I pray to God we don’t let that happen to our guys again.

  11. I lived in the Pittsburg area for a short time until my dad was sent to Vietnam and my mom moved closer to her relatives till he got back. I was in the 2nd grade. Snow, coal, hills and steel mills.

    Technology is still going strong, been thinking on that this week. When someone can earn a 7 figure income creating a new programming language, and developers in that same language 6 figure incomes and plenty of jobs if they have the right skills, says something. Or when someone can create a new language as a hobby and within months others have jobs developing that code for another company, you know that none of what they knew was taught in a university, but through the open source community, on and off line, says more about that shift in how we learn stuff too.

  12. Another great song in this genre is Aragon Mill, originally written by Si Khan. There is a great recording by the Dry Branch Fire Squad in 1987. I think John Mellancamp has more songs with a similar message.

    • Forgot, if you want to hear a song that will bring tears to your eyes: Devil Take the Farmer, also by the Dry Branch Fire Squad.

  13. Sat in a networking deal with a bunch of project managers last night talking about the same thing. Back on monday, or ws it last week, I heard Glenn Beck going through diffrent parts of this same song. Only he was just hammering on the unions. Not really addressing the meaning of the song. The changes like you said have only begun but in my opinion I feel they have already finished and a new round has started. And the population at large is already in danger.

    • Modern Survival

      @Martin Hickey, Beck in I have some weird mental connection I guess, I always hear he was taking about the same subject just before of after I did. I don’t listen to him though mainly because I am recording when he is broadcasting and I am sure he ain’t listening to me.

      Your comment shows my issues with Beck, while I agree with much he is so myopic. Sure the unions were a part of the problem but such a small part. They may have hastened the impact of the shift but they sure didn’t cause it.

      They didn’t send kids to Vietnam.
      They didn’t cause industry to shift to lighter materials
      Etc.

      Sure they “crawled away” but that doesn’t mean you can blame them for the entire mess. And to be fair it was the absolute abuses in the industrial world of the North East that created the unions in the first place.

  14. Jack,
    I grew up around Wheeling WV and gratuted in the late 80′s. When we were growing up we all new we were either heading into a mill or a mine and there was no need for college. We would supoort our families the way our fathers supported us. Then the mines closed the mills shut down and we found out what poverty was when our fathers lost their jobs. Needless to say it was off to the Army for me as we couldn’t afford college without employment. I presently live back in the Wheeling area and it has never recovered so when all the crap of the present hit we never really felt the pressure like the rest of the nation did.Thanks for this today as my son will be listening today after school and he’ll have a better understanding of how we came up and why we do what we do.

    Scav

  15. Jack, I’ve been listening since the Survival Podcast’s first Christmas. And this is one of the best episodes you’ve done. I’ve mulled this song over a bit before (even from a UK perspective) but you’ve shown me a bit more. Ta.

  16. Billy J. was no profit….just singing about what he saw at the time.
    I wonder what the generation between WWI and WWII went through and if history repeated after WWII

    • Modern Survival

      @Tony, what happened?

      1920s a huge boom
      1930s um, you know what happened
      1940s another war with a economic boom
      1950s and early 60s, a forgotten war and another boom
      Mid 60s to mid 70s Another war (no economic boom this time)
      1980s bust to boom and back
      1990s bust to boom and back
      2000s bust to boom and back

      Interesting isn’t it?

  17. I’m the Grandson of Ukrainian Immigrants in NE Pennsylvania, so I consider you family. Great show.

    I want to add some context on the Jersey Shore (as I weekended there in the ’70s). If your only context is the current TV show, or the Jersey Shore life in our current world, it was not like that then. It was once a very classy place for a middle class vacation.

    thanks Jack
    (listening since #300)

    • Modern Survival

      @Andy, that is a very good point about Jersey brother. Seriously until right now I hadn’t really realized that my memories of Jersey have no correlation to the crap on modern TV. Funny really, I just never considered those idiots even remotely connected to my memories of Red Bank/Ft. Monmouth etc.

  18. As much as I love your show and all the things I’ve learned, today’s show was my favorite. I remember hearing all the stories about steel mills closing from Allentown as far as steelton. Growing up in shippensburg it was Letterkenny army depot closing and the sawmill shutting down that went through my mind listening to today’s show. I haven’t heard that song in at least 25 years and it’s even more beautiful than I remember it. Thanks for the education. Painful as the breakdown was it was nice to remember how tight our communities once were. Great show Jack. Thank you so much.

  19. Jack ,
    I have two small boys 4 and 2 years old. I hope i can teach them to pay for thier education whatever they are in too. My wife has started a savings account for them. Hopefully our species will figure it out and come full circle back to the Good old days when an honest days work meant something and Jersey shore meant taking the family to the beach and not a dumbass tv show.

  20. Jack, do you remember the movie from 1983 with Tom Cruise, “All The Right Moves”? It kinda covers the same desire of the young kids to find a better life and it was set in a dying steel town. Billy Joel’s song was far better than the movie and it’s success may have been the inspiration for the movie. I never could buy that a twerp like Tom Cruise could get a football scholarship, maybe flag football.

  21. I found it interesting how you gave the example of the demise of the milk man and that it is also an example of how things cycle back around again. We used to get milk delivered to our home weekly, the gray-market, raw milk, healthy kind. This man delivered to a lot of homes in our area purely under the radar, that is until he was put out of business suddenly… by a tornado! A tornado hit his milk barn and his house! It took awhile to find out why he didn’t show up and I took up the slack by going to the Amish and buying raw milk and eggs for ourselves and several others of his customers. I became the milk man! I was getting about twenty gallons or more of milk each week until he got back into business over a year later. I was blessed to find an Amish family with a Jersey cow. Sometimes the milk was almost half cream! The yolks of the eggs we got from their truly free-range chickens were almost orange. I think the gray-market deliveries might become more common as the demand for healthy food rises at the same time that the government wants to keep us from having those choices. Good grief! I can buy raw eggs, raw meat, raw vegetables, and even live lobsters but I can’t buy raw milk? If I have to buy milk out of the back of a van, then they leave me no choice.

  22. Hey Jack (and the TSP Community),

    When I was about 7 or 8, I was singing along to the George Strait song “Ocean Front Property” and my mother asked me what the song meant. She pointed out that every song has a message, some good, some bad, some just silly. I had never considered such a thing before (of course, I was only 7 or 8), but every since I can’t help but think through the lyrics of whatever song I’m listening to, or think about the message being delivered in a movie. I ask my son, who is 7 now, all the time what a song, or cartoon, or movie is really saying, and I’m quite proud that he is able to sometimes answer these questions. I thought of this while listening to the show – I had never heard “Allentown” before – and I wanted to say thank you. Music has become to modern society what poetry use to be, and I appreciate those who point out the underlying messaging and the concepts and lessons that can be learned from them.

    • I would agree that the “fringe” of mainstream music (ie. singer/songwriters) have always been the modern day poets.

      I was recently introduced to a band called ‘American Graveyard’ and was quite impressed with their lyrics and the message they’re trying to get out.

      Check out a song called ‘Common Ones’ here:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ga8II-SIFfg

  23. Great show!

  24. Funny you should mention that scene from “The Graduate.” Morris Berman uses the same scene in the beginning of his book “Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline.”

    Berman is not a survivalist, but his premise is provocative. He posits that we are a nation with a “hustler” culture and a focus on the attainment of affluence. This culture created our success and is also part of our demise. It’s not a “happy” book, but like today’s show, very thoughtful.

    Plant a bigger garden!

  25. I grew up hearing the same thing “go to college & you will get a good job and your family will help you get in at a good company where you will work till you retire after 20-30 years”. Oh how I found out that was a lie. The companies talk a good game but then lay you off or close. The diploma is a debt ridden piece of paper that gets you no where. Here in my thirties I still hear ‘go back to college and get a different degree’. I am NOT going to go back and get deeper in student loan debt just for something that is useless.

  26. Maybe the best show yet. The strip mining analogy may be the best description I’ve heard of what was happening to the economy during the housing bubble.

  27. Great episode Jack!…I am fortunate enough to still have a decent manufacturing job for a young man. Coincidentally it is working at the same Boeing facility as your uncle Mike. Ive had the pleasure of meeting him and he is a colorful character to say the least! Thanks for the show it has made me realize how fortunate I am to be gainfully employed and yet not become just another drone!

    • Modern Survival

      @Kevin that is wild! Haven’t seen Mike since God I guess 1992, there is some real bad karma in my dad’s side of the family. Makes me pretty sad thinking about it at times.

  28. Jack –

    Sammy Hagar’s band Chicken Foot recently released a single not unlike this called Three and a Half Letters. (http://goo.gl/RuuUc) It doesn’t tell the story the way that Billy Joel does, but chronicles three letters of those out of work, and the half letter that of a child…

    Being from Eastern PA myself, my grandfather was a former coal worker and WWII veteran, who eventually died from black lung and is the EXACT profile you described. I know it well as I grew up watching the tail end of the ABE area falling apart not to mention where my Grandparents lived in Carbondale, PA went from a small city of five figures to today a small town ridden with no industry and high crime rates. The whole area (ABE, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) is still struggling today as I have friends that still live there.

    This podcast hit home… Thanks Jack.

    • Modern Survival

      @Jack, we share more than a name don’t we? My grandfather also worked the mines, had black lung, etc. I remember he had pieces of coal in one of his arms and hands that were never removed. There were embedded in his body during a collapse. Those men were tough guys.

    • You mentioned being taken to the bar. I remember as a kid my grandfather took us to the bar down the street, almost exactly as you described, and put on the stool next to him, and the bartender told me stories about my grandfather while I sipped on my vanilla coke. In hindsight some of the fondest memories.

      NEPA is an interesting area. Lacks much opportunity for people who used to work so hard all they could do is come home eat dinner and go to sleep, get up and do it again. Never expected anything from anyone. Always willing to lend a helping hand. For all intents and purposes, American peasants content with their families and lives. A rare extinct breed. Some days I miss the innocence of those years I look back on today.

  29. That song sure brings back memories.. I actually purchased it when I was a teenager on 45 when it first came out (for you youngsters, that’s kinda like a vinyl cd.. ;) ) I think I had a good understanding of the song even as a teen because as the youngest of four children, I had a brother who was old enough to have participated in the Vietnam War, drafted at 18. But I hadn’t really thought much about the parallels with today, so I appreciate your show. Now I need to go get my Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits CD’s out … forgotten how much I loved he music.

  30. Ryan Lewellin

    Who would’ve thought that a podcast about a Billy Joel song would turn out so good? A lot of this podcast hit close to home…

    I have what’s probably one of the last manufacturing jobs in the US that offers the same kind of wages and benefits as they did in the past generation and I’m really thankful that I have it. If everyone that was willing to do the work had the opportunity to have a job like that, this country would be in a much better situation. It’s sad to see people who should be doing more doing things like peddling cell phones and serving lattes.

  31. Just got done with the episode and your comments about guys being wounded but not physically is very true. One of the big differences between this mess and the ones my dad was in (Vietnam) is the Military acknowledges it happens and is actually urging people to get help. The downside of the public messages about PTSd is that it makes employers hesitant to hire vets and fully standoff to hire Reserves and National Guard guys.

    They fear the vet will go postal on them or freak out some how. They don’t want to hire a Reservist or Guardsman because the Army could just take them way and stick the employer with a lot of costs while the guy is gone and even more when he gets back. I have a good friend who got a job four years after he retired. He was highly experienced but lacked civilian certifications. He was an energetic worker but was 20 years older than what the employers considered his peers. Employers just don’t see a direct benefit for BRM and Field events when you’re not a sporting goods store. Add in that it took him three years of work with a therapist to be able to go sit in a TGIFriday’s with out his back to the wall in a corner by the back door. (As he put it, asking for that in a job interview really changes the feeling.)

    These are the reason today’s vets have such a high unemployment rate pushing 22%. I think that flag is still in their face and employers are afraid to help move it aside.

  32. This was one of my favorites! Excellent, relevant topic–big picture concepts, patterns, history. A 50,000 ft. show. Thanks, Jack.

  33. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed this.

  34. Jack, you say the genie is out of the bottle for the Internet. My challenge is in the event of peak oil, the internet runs on electricity, massive amounts of it, those servers need lots of power and lots of cooling. It takes trucks and large trucks to lay fibre. In the event that oil costs are extreme, resources may be deployed elsewhere.

    Just a thought.

    • Modern Survival

      @Brent, that is a different animal, sure that is a concern. I was addressing the whole “shutting down the net” concern, not whether or not the grid will fail. BTW hostgator runs on “green energy”, LOL. However I don’t use them any longer, I now have to use a petrol burning firm to handle the bandwidth requirements of TSP.

  35. DAMN YOU, SPIRKO! I just listened to this show 3 days ago and have been humming Allentown for the last 3 days!

    Anyway, I had never heard the song until you played it. I was immediately drawing the similarities. It’s pretty amazing how people really try to convince you that everything is ok if you just keep doing what you’ve always been doing.

  36. robert ellingson

    they were guting the steel mills back in 1982! joel is not that prophetic!

    • Modern Survival

      @robert ellingson, Did you actually listen to the episode? They were not gutting in 82, they were already guttED as in past tense. The song wasn’t meant to be a prophecy it was a song about what was. Such things are often prophecies by default though. In this case Joel’s words apply equally to 2012 as they did to 1982. Ask an occupier what their “graduation hanging on the wall” is doing to “help them at all” today. In 82 the song was about a region today the song is about a nation.

  37. Steven Farley

    Coming late to this podcast, I’d love to hear you follow up with a look at the death of the family farm in the 80′s through John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow”.

    I don’t remember any booms. Born in ’66 into a timber town in the PacNW, I watched the awful 70′s slide into a worse 80′s as a combination of cheap lumber from Canada and the SE, rabid environmentalism, and the S&L collapse gut us. I watched our town go from eleven local mills to two, and those tiny and downsized. We had to sell our grandfather’s farm shortly after he passed away because of the inheritance taxes or I would have tried to stay on to perhaps one day run it. Instead I gave six years to the USAF and Gulf War I took my marriage. When I got out in ’91 my state was still a mess and there was no work in my town. It took another ten years to get my head straight and finally do well enough to start again with a marriage and home purchase–just in time to watch the housing market collapse and my union trucking job go away (the older boomers can’t afford to retire because of the high cost of insurance so there is no advancement in seniority). From my life’s view it’s just been one long, hard slide into darkness.

    I’ve lived that song for 46 years.