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Allentown is over its Billy Joel song

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Forty years ago, Billy Joel's hit song "Allentown" fell off the charts after almost five months on the Billboard 100, and it left a legacy. The city of Allentown, Pa., became a symbol of the Rust Belt and economic hardship. And yet a lot of the people who live there say Billy Joel's song did not exactly help. Julian Abraham reports.

JULIAN ABRAHAM, BYLINE: It's one of those songs that you can recognize right away. It starts with a steam whistle.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEAM WHISTLE BLOWING)

ABRAHAM: Then come the sounds of a hard day's work at a steel mill.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY JOEL SONG, "ALLENTOWN")

ABRAHAM: It tells the story of Allentown, Pa., a symbol of the American Rust Belt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLENTOWN")

BILLY JOEL: (Singing) Well, we're living here Allentown. And they're closing all the factories down. Out in Bethlehem, they're killing time, filling out forms, standing in line.

ABRAHAM: The boom and bust of the area's steelwork that made much of the country's biggest landmarks until its sudden collapse in the '80s and the lives that were never the same when their stable jobs were taken away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLENTOWN")

JOEL: (Singing) And we're living here in Allentown.

ABRAHAM: The song is mainly about Bethlehem Steel, a nearby steel factory that used to be one of the biggest in the world. At its peak, it employed over 30,000 people. Guillermo Lopez worked there for almost 30 years. Then, like everyone else at Bethlehem Steel, he was laid off, but he still likes the song.

GUILLERMO LOPEZ: The mood, the sounds of steam, of the clanging and the machinery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLENTOWN")

JOEL: (Singing) Hey. Hey. Hey. Oh, oh, oh.

LOPEZ: It just puts you right back in the steel mill if you worked here.

ABRAHAM: Allentown's mayor, Matt Tuerk, was only 7 when the song came out. He recently had a birthday. His staff serenaded him with a sing-along to a song he hates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Well, we're living here in Allentown.

ABRAHAM: While singing, Mayor Tuerk couldn't help but throw in some ad libs defending his city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) And it's getting pretty hard to stay.

MATT TUERK: No, it's not. All right (laughter).

It's so wrong. It's like - I don't know how it felt in 1982, but it doesn't feel like that now. Like, I honestly have a hard time saying, it's getting hard to stay. Like, it's not hard to stay. It's hard to leave.

ABRAHAM: The mayor's main criticism - he says the song paints the city in a negative light and made it a symbol of industrial decay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURA BALLEK COLE: Oh, wait. This my favorite part.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Every child had a pretty good shot.

ABRAHAM: The woman you heard on the piano, Laura Ballek Cole, is the manager of Civic Innovation for the City of Allentown.

BALLEK COLE: The song itself is righteous. It's a great song. It's a banger. But, you know, it doesn't actually - it's not about Allentown.

ABRAHAM: Even Billy Joel agreed when the song came out back in 1982 it's not about Allentown specifically but a state of mind. We're not moving out or giving up, he said. We're going to try.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEAM WHISTLE BLOWING)

ABRAHAM: For NPR News, I'm Julian Abraham in Allentown.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY JOEL SONG, "ALLENTOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julian Abraham | Lehigh Valley News