Question about lyric in Billy Joel's "Allentown"

“Every child had a pretty good shot
to get at least as far as his old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an un-American flag in our face.”

Now, the un-American flag… is that saying the steel business went in the crapper because of overseas cheaper production (so, say, a Chinese flag instead)

… or is it saying the steel business was hurt when unions were accused of being un-American (aka “commie”)?

It’s not “un-American”. I just listened to that phrase on YouTube six times and I can’t tell exactly WHAT it is, but it’s definitely not “un-American”.

ETA: Found a concert video that has better sound. It’s actually “American flag”, not “un-American”. I still have no idea what it MEANS, but the lyrics are clearer now, anyway.

Allentown lyrics. It’s “an American flag.”

I guess it means that you’re still living in the best country in the world, even if your life sucks.

Weird. Looks like you’re right, but that just doesn’t make sense.

Annie, I can’t see that interpretation, given the bitterness and pessimism of the rest of the song.

Joel’s a Boomer, and the video seems to contrast the WWII soldiers returning to town with another soldier in a wheelchair returning at a later time. The song is off The Nylon Curtain from 1982, so only 7 years after the end of Vietnam. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that’s basically what he’s referencing there, the difference in the treatment that the returning WWII soldiers received and the treatment that returning Vietnam soldiers received (not talking about “spitting” or anything, but the lack of victory parades and GI bills and conspicuous gratitude, etc).

As has been cleared up it’s “They threw an American flag in our face”

My guess is that kids of the WWII vets had the high expectation of doing as well as their parents or better. But as they (the youth) were trying to achieve their goal, Vietnam and the draft (the American Flag representing that) was thrown in their face- something they had to do that interrupted their path to success. The vets of Vietnam did not have the success in life that WWII vets found.

The song is about the death of the American steel industry in Eastern Pennsylvania in the late 1970s and early 80s; it was released on 1982’s The Nylon Curtain album. It’s told from the perspective of an unemployed mill worker.

In your typical one-industry town (like Allentown), kids would go from high school to work in the mill, where they had the opportunity to be promoted without much formal education. (“Every child had a pretty good shot/To get at least as far as their old man got”) With the closing of the mills, however, those opportunities went away, to be replaced by massive unemployment.

The song is surprisingly anti-union. (“And the union people crawled away”) I’ve always taken the “But something happened on the way to that place/They threw an American flag in our face” lines as an insult to the men who were facing poverty and economic uncertainty, perhaps by the union and the mill owners; patriotism doesn’t mean a whole lot when you live in a depressed area with no good prospects. I don’t think it has anything to do with Vietnam because that’s not what the song is about.

This is just my interpretation, mind. I don’t claim to be able to read Billy Joel’s mind, nor have I read anything about the song. And, for the record, the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton region is doing much better, now that its economy is a lot more diverse.

You kids might be surprised to hear this but Ronald Reagan was not universally revered back when he was President. Some people felt he ignored some real problems that needed to be solved in America by saying that everything in America was going great (“throwing an American flag in our face”). I’m guessing Joel’s song, like John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, is a reflection of this.

According to Annie’s link, the line is

If something happened on the way to that place
they threw an American flag in our face.

Which makes sense to me in a ‘so they outsourced your jobs, what’s good for business is good for America, what are you anyway, communists?’ sort of way.

It’s art. It doesn’t have to mean anything really.

Nylon Curtain was meant to be a “concept” album, reflecting the life experiences of “boomers”.

“Allentown”-collapse of coal/steel industry
“Goodnight Saigon”-tribute to his friends who fought, and died, in Vietnam
The other songs about “boomer” angst and alienation.

Except that lyrics found on the internet are often notorious for being inaccurate.

It’s “BUT something happened on the way to that place
they threw an American flag in our face,” according to my CD copy of “The Nylon Curtain,” which includes a lyrics sheet.

Fair enough, although lyrics sheets that come with CDs aren’t full proof either. I just checked 3 different youtubes and it doesn’t sound like he says anything in front of ‘something.’ God, I need a life.

Next we can debate whether or not Mick Jagger killed the Kennedys.

I need a life too-

from the Billy Joel Official Site lyrics section:

“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”

I truly don’t know how official the site is, but it looks like it’s pretty authentic.

And a spellchecker spellchecker. :slight_smile:


How would a spellchecker catch “full” and “proof”?

He really had to manhandle the meter to make the flag line scan. I can’t remember the last time I heard a triplet in a narrative pop song.

btw don’t listen to Piano Man either, then :slight_smile:

Yeah, it makes you think he was really trying to say something, not just make it rhyme.