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
But 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


Lyrics submitted by kevin, edited by kaey99, axcohn, kevinmkr

Allentown Lyrics as written by Billy Joel

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Lyrics powered by LyricFind

Allentown song meanings
Add Your Thoughts

22 Comments

sort form View by:
  • +10
    General CommentThis is an easy song to explain. This song is a story about the ordinary folk of Allentown, Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley (Bethlehem is next to or near Allentown) and the steel mills many of them worked at. The Lehigh Valley's economy was based upon the steel mills that were there, and when they closed lots of people became unemployed.

    The first verse talks about how people of Billy Joel's parents' age typically grew up in the Lehigh Valley. "Out in Bethlehem they're killing time / Filling out forms / Standing in line" describes the mass of people applying for unemployment benefits after the layoffs. The typical man who lives around there who are Billy Joel's parents' age, the men of the Great Generation, participated in World War 2, may have met their future wife through the USO (an organization who entertains the troops when they're on duty), then were employed by the steel mills of the Valley after the war.

    The second verse talks about the assumption that good times would continue for ordinary folk and later generations of Allentown. Teachers would encourage kids to get degrees and even those who didn't get one could rely on the steel mill economy to provide for their needs, or so people assumed. But after the closings, with the layoff of union employees and the unavailability of coal in the area, young people couldn't rely on that anymore.

    The last lines of the song say that those of the Great Generation could take for granted all this economic opportunity, but younger people could not. And when the young people were drafted into the Vietnam War ("Threw an American Flag in Our Face"), it wasn't the same as with their parent's generation. Not only was the war unpopular, but many young people felt dispirited already because of the unemployment and the events of the 1960s, so for them it was an insult not an opportunity.
    The following lines describe just how the situation in the Lehigh Valley can destroy the spirit of even the best people living there:

    "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"

    He doesn't feel he has a good reason to get up in the morning. What's actually really ingenious about this song is just how Billy Joel can take something as ordinary, unhappy and newspaperish as unemployment in a mill city metro area and turn it into a story and flowing song which many people can relate to. Billy Joel is a great songwriter and storyteller.
    stoolhardyon March 16, 2005   Link
  • +3
    General CommentUuuuuumm, I think that the writer is trying to portray an era, or a phenomenon, of the eastern united-ststes. Its about more than just a town. Its a song writen about a dying way of life... Does that make sense??
    requiem_of_hopeon September 29, 2002   Link
  • +3
    General CommentThe line "they threw an American flag in our face," I think, refers to the Reagan Administration's attempt to fix the American post-industrial problem through vigorous patriotism and renewed faith in the American Dream. Unfortunately, this new optimism did not help create any new manufacturing jobs.
    IvoKenton November 12, 2005   Link
  • +2
    General CommentWow - bumping an *old* thread, but really got to know this song over the past few car rides with a CD of Billy's best songs repeating. Couldn't agree more with Stoolhardy on everything except the American Flag line, and agree with Ivokent about the rah-rah patriotism we were all supposed to feel when times were pretty sh*tty for the common man when common work was disappearing like trees from the rain forest.

    This song strikes me as lyrically one of Bill's Joel's very best and a true contemporary folk song. The fact that it's set to a cleverly pumping mechanical rhythm that belies entirely the very potent message of the lyrics seemed at first incongruous, but can you imagine the drunken dirge it would be if the meter matched the message? Leave it to Roger Waters to write stuff like that. :D I like Allentown plenty fine the way it is.

    Thank you, Billy Joel!
    Zorton January 16, 2015   Link
  • +2
    My InterpretationStoolhardy has it closest to the feeling and sentiment captured by the song, for the people of the Lehigh Valley. Billy Joel spent a lot of his early career playing Allentown, Northampton and a few of the other towns around the ABE metropolitan area. So he really knew the mood of this area and ones very much like it throughout the Northeast and the Rust Belt. The guy is the Woody Guthrie of his era.

    I grew up in the LV Area, graduated from a local high school in the late 70's (Thank you Jimmy Carter for ruining my adolescence) and literally lived the sentiments conveyed. My friends' parents worked at "the Steel" or Western Electric or Mack Truck or any number of apparel factories and small manufacturing operations that made up the local economy. We all were raised to believe that if we worked hard, studied in school and kept our noses clean, we could expect the same middle class, suburban, affluent lifestyle that these companies afforded our parents. Then the roof fell in. And the best our leaders could offer were WIN buttons, recommendations to turn our thermostats to 58 degrees and be patient waiting in gas lines for rationed gas. That was the 70s in Allentown and the LV.

    As for the line about throwing an American Flag in our face: someone said something about Reagan. The decline started long before RR. By the time of the 80s these businesses were in long, fifteen and twenty year declines. I think the line is a reference to the sentiment of the region at the time, as stated at the Bethlehem Plant and the Martin Tower complex, "Buy American". The unions and the management used to threaten, protest and even vandalize any non-Detroit vehicles in the company lots. So here was a company that was cutting and outsourcing jobs out from under the employees and appealing to the workers patriotism. And telling the workers that they had a responsibility to buy substandard products like Pintos and Vegas and other shabbily built American cars, cast out of good old BSC steel, because we are all in it together.

    And the Allentown of today: wear kevlar. It will give you a fighting chance.
    mathman2015on August 31, 2015   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThe thing is, He hit it right on the nose with this song. That is Allentown (and surrounding areas).
    Brlgrlon April 27, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI'm from Rochester, NY and this song really strikes a chord. Kodak, Delphi, AC Delco, and Xerox downsized and laid off massive amounts of people and threw the area into a downward spiral. Only now are we starting to come out of it. The song resonates with everything thats happening in the area.
    shoehornhandson May 21, 2007   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationI submitted a lyric change from "won't be giving up today" to "won't be getting up today", which is straight from the official Billy Joel website.

    The correct lyrics create an impression that is 180 degrees from the incorrect ones posted and it's hugely important to the context of the story.

    The author isn't optimistic and anxious to continue his struggle. Instead, he's resigned to defeat and, potentially, is hinting at taking his life.
    kevinmkron May 28, 2019   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI love allentown! great song, and its actually a halfway decent city i live like a half hour from there. This song really describes this city back in the 50's. it is an old steel mill town very, very blue collar town.
    LiveUrLifeon May 01, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIt was written when they played in Allentown in 1982 after the "Rust Belt" of the northeast U.S. went to hell.
    wpoton October 15, 2002   Link

Add your thoughts

Log in now to tell us what you think this song means.

Don’t have an account? Create an account with SongMeanings to post comments, submit lyrics, and more. It’s super easy, we promise!

Back to top