Genre of the Week: Allentown by Billy Joel

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We all have been paying attention to the recent developments in the United States, especially when it comes to Donald Trump. Already he has destroyed generations-long ties with traditional neighbors, like Germany, France and the rest of Europe, plus countries in the Middle East minus Israel and Saudi Arabia and with China. He has declared to pull America out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which his predecessor Barack Obama had signed prior to leaving office in January. And to the dismay of even his fellow Americans both at home as well as abroad, he has stressed the importance of jobs over wasting money to help other poor countries fight a phenomenon, which he claims does not exist.

 

All of this for one sole purpose: clean coal!

 

While several actors, even within his own country, have declared that they will buck the trend of the president and follow the Paris protocol- with Hawaii having become the first state to sign the agreement, other states like Minnesota, New York, California and Washington set to follow even as an alliance, and even oil companies are going green with their approach to sustainable development, all directions are pointing towards an isolationist politician whose title is the President of the United States, but he is acting in the best interest of just the coal miners and those of the oil companies who are against Paris.

 

But why resort to coal, when so many arguments point towards phasing the energy source out in favor of renewable energies, such as fuel cells, wind, solar and hydroelectric? The energy is cheap, but residents and coal workers have to pay the price in terms of health. Generations of coal miners have been in the business and would like to remain there for the long term. However, the numbers are dwindling as mines close, miners get older and the job is not attractive at all.  Mining claims to be safe, but there are enough accidents to question that statement.

 

And the last claim that Trump has pointed out is that there are enough social and health benefits that will make the job an everlasting one. People can enter the field and stay there for life. And this song, entitled Allentown by Billy Joel, has several arguments debuking that claim.  Produced in 1982, the setting for the song is in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the heart of the coal and steel industry. There, the decline of the industry was taking shape after World War II, with mines and steel factories closing down, and workers suffering from the plight of unemployment and other social pathologies. By the early 1980s, over half of the factories and mines in Pennsylvania had been shut down and regions were forced to reinvent themselves. The trend would later be felt in Germany at the time of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, especially in the east, where the mining of brown coal, the dirtiest of coal devastated areas in Saxony including the Black Triangle region.

The lyrics behind this song has to do with the aftereffects of the closing down of the steel mills and mines. Listen to the song and ask yourself the following questions:

 

  1. Compare the war generation with the younger one. Which one had it better and why?

 

  1. Describe the life of a coal miner from the singer’s point of view. What is typical of them and the working conditions?

 

  1. When the people in Allentown are waiting for the Pennsylvania they never found, what was meant by that?

 

  1. Why is it hard for them to stay?

 

  1. In your opinion, despite Trump’s quest for reenergizing the coal industry, will it be successful in the end? Why or why not?

 

Supplemental question: Does your reason have to do with the decline in the industry and if so, why?

 

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William Martin Joel was born in 1949 and has had a singing career that has spanned over five decades. Billy Joel’s breakthrough came with Piano Man, produced in 1973. Since then, he has released 12 albums featuring both pop and classical music. Songs credited to his name include We didn’t start the fire, And so it goes, My life, Manhattan 2017, An innocent man, Leningrad, and Baby Grand (together with favorite idol, the late Ray Charles).  Allentown was one of several songs Billy Joel wrote which focuses on real themes affecting America, Russia and other parts of the world. That song received praise from the mayor of Allentown, and Joel therefore received royalities and other recognition.

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