The Saturday Morning Newspaper

“Well we’re livin’ here in Allentown, and they’re closing all the factories down…” Billy Joel, 1982.

I read a book to my students when I am introducing the basics of reading music called “A Noteworthy Tale.”The characters are do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and the other do. Mi gets kidnapped and held hostage in the land of Slur….a place that is depicted in black, white and gray. No music and no color of any kind are permitted. Nothing grows there. No one ever smiles, no one ever sings or even speaks in rhythm. No one treats anyone else with civility. It’s an unpleasant place, with no creativity and nothing to look forward to. Hold that thought, and continue reading, if you would.

The following is the Wikipedia entry on the song “Allentown” by Billy Joel. The italics are mine.

“The song’s theme is of the resolve of those coping with the demise of the American manufacturing industry in the latter part of the 20th century. More specifically, it depicts the depressed, blue-collar livelihood of Allentown and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s residents in the wake of Bethlehem Steel’s decline and eventual closure. Joel witnessed this first-hand while performing at the Lehigh Valley’s numerous music venues and colleges at the start of his career in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The introductory rhythm of the song is reminiscent of the sound of a rolling mill converting steel ingots into I-beams or other shapes. Such a sound was commonly heard throughout South Bethlehem when the Bethlehem Steel plant was in operation from 1857 through 1995.

A year after the song was released, the mayor of Allentown sent a letter to Joel about giving some of his royalties to the town. Mayor Joseph Daddona, who sent the letter, said it would help for scholarships for future musicians in Joel’s footsteps. On January 20, 1983, the letter was mailed to Joel with an article next day, quoting Daddona as saying the following:
Not only would this fund be a great way to share a tiny part of your good fortune to others in Allentown, it would also help keep alive the ‘Allentown’ song and the Billy Joel legend (which you’ve already become here). – Joseph Daddona, January 21, 1983

The song is bookended on the album The Nylon Curtain with the song “Where’s the Orchestra?”, which ends with a brief instrumental version of “Allentown”. ”

I thought of this song as I was reading the newspaper this morning. Allentown School District’s superintendent and school board have decided to disregard the general public opinion that was expressed by over 700 in attendance at the school board meeting this past week and are cutting 247 teaching positions. At the elementary level, most of the positions being cut are in the art, music, physical education and library departments.

I am becoming increasingly concerned about the future of our country. Lately it seems to me that we are in the midst of a perfect storm of the worst of both political parties. The newspapers depict, in bits and pieces, a country that is falling apart before our eyes. Allentown School district, which by the way, is a failing school district, is an example of educational programs being stripped to the bare bones in the name of streamlining programs for student success, but is, in fact, really about money. In the midst of America’s Great Recession, there IS no money to pay for “extras” like art, music, phys ed and library.
(Note the sarcasm on the word “extras” please.) The last administration brought us “No Child Left Behind”, which really hasn’t worked out all that well because it does not recognize the reality of differences in children. They are NOT all the same. Each child has different gifts and talents, and frankly, some have more and some have less. Some are more motivated than others. They come from different backgrounds and lifestyles, some of which are more conducive to a successful education, others, not so much. But now we have state governments and school district administrations which want to strip away anything that isn’t reading or math…possibly because NCLB hasn’t worked. (Money issues aside.) The problem here is also that differences in children and their intelligences are not being recognized. It levels the playing field to the lowest possible altitude: everybody gets the basics, and nothing else.

So what happens to those students whose potential lies in art and music? The pat answer is that their families will have to pay for private instruction in those areas….but we have money issues, remember? “The Great Recession”? Who has money to give their kids instruction in the areas in which they excel if those areas don’t happen to be language arts and mathematics?

Now, if you look back at the Wikipedia quote at the beginning of this post, you’ll see what it was that helped get Allentonians through the recession in the 80’s. “The Lehigh Valley’s numerous music venues and colleges…”
“Mayor Joseph Daddona, who sent the letter, said it would help for scholarships for future musicians in Joel’s footsteps….”
What future musicians will there be? Who will there be to participate in music in any way, if no one knows anything to do with it except turn on the radio and hear what somebody else created? (Note that I say hear, as opposed to listen. Listening is something that you have to learn how to do.)

Axing music programs is so very short sighted. For one thing, the benefits of learning music go beyond knowing how to listen, sing, play, move, and create. It’s a discipline. It has a massive effect on brain development and brain function. Kids can learn a ton about math from subdividing beats in as many ways as creatively possible. They can learn science from observing what happens to vibrations as they pass through instruments of various sizes and materials, and what happens when that vibration reaches their ears, and how it gets to their brain. They can learn how to work together as a team to create an end product that no single voice or instrument can create. They can learn to understand other cultures and societies, or the history that they came from by listening to, learning and performing music from other places, societies and times. Obviously, being able to read makes learning anything easier, and they get a lot of practice at that in reading the same words again and again, each time a bit more fluently, as they learn a song. Their vocabulary expands as they learn to understand what they are singing about.

But as importantly as all of that, what kind of a culture are we going to become, if only a very few know anything about music? (Or about a lot of different things, for that matter.) I fear slipping back to the dark ages, when only a few knew how to be the creators and executors of the arts, and the rest just had to sit back and watch, never having the opportunity to sing for themselves, or to create. I don’t want to be just a spectator, and I don’t want my students to be relegated to that role. So, I find one last quote from Wikipedia to be quite apropos: “Where’s the Orchestra?” There won’t be one in which any of our kids can participate if things keep going the way they are now. We’ll be living in Slur, in black and white, with no color, no joy, no music, an unpleasant place with no creativity and nothing to look forward to.

“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.”
Billy Joel, 1982.

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3 comments on “The Saturday Morning Newspaper”

  1. it is a very narrow viewpoint that music and art are extras – they fail to see the immense value in those programs. I imagine for many kids the arts is what keeps them in school and semi-engaged – without it they’ll check out and we’ll have kids with a flat mathematic affect.

  2. It’s whatt kept me in school, for sure. I just think that if we’re going to give a free public education to every kid, we should educate every kid so that they can put their own individual talents to ggod use.

  3. And, as my dad used to say, “Teach a kid to blow a horn and he (or she), will never blow a safe.” What a guy. :0)


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