From "New York State of Mind" to "No Man's Land": Billy Joel's Songs about American Places

By Duchan, Joshua S. | The American Music Research Center Journal, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

From "New York State of Mind" to "No Man's Land": Billy Joel's Songs about American Places


Duchan, Joshua S., The American Music Research Center Journal


Billy Joel (b. 1949) is one of the best-selling popular musicians in the United States, whose accolades include six Grammy awards and 23 nominations, several honorary doctorates, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the 2014 Gershwin Award from the Library of Congress. Yet his work is rarely discussed in scholarship on American popular music.1 As with many singer-songwriters, Joel's music offers a commentary on American life and culture rooted in both his personal experience and the time during which it was composed.

Among the topics Joel's songs address, one of the most prominent is place. Throughout his oeuvre one finds songs about his environs, especially New York, California, and suburbia. These musical portraits typically reflect his impressions of and personal experience in each locale. Indeed, movement to and through various places has framed much of his career. After playing in a handful of Long Island (New York) bands, his first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor (1971) bears the title of a suburban New York town not far from where he grew up in Hicksville, in Nassau County. Following the work's commercial failure, he moved to California in 1972. His return to New York in 1975 is celebrated in several numbers, including "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," "New York State of Mind," and "Summer, Highland Falls," from Turnstiles (1976). Observations of and commentary on various places continue on his later albums, where he writes about locations both domestic (e.g., "52nd Street," from 52nd Street [1978], "Allentown," from The Nylon Curtain [1982], and "Big Man on Mulberry Street," from The Bridge [1986]) and foreign (e.g., "Vienna," from The Stranger [1977], "Goodnight Saigon," from The Nylon Curtain, and "Leningrad," from Storm Front [1989]). Moreover, his public persona is also defined by a sense of place, as he is regularly identified (and identifies) as a Long Islander, New Yorker, and as the New York analog of New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen.2

Of course, music has been used to evoke a sense of place for centuries, and American music is no exception. For example, the 1894 Tin Pan Alley favorite, "The Sidewalks of New York," by Charles B. Lawlor and James W. Blake, depicts the city and some of its landmarks while offering a sentimental, nostalgic look back on love. Of the same era, Charles Ives's orchestral set, Three Places in New England (1908-14), evokes the fate of the first black American regiment during the Civil War (memorialized in Boston Common), a child's musical encounters while picnicking at Putnam's Camp (Redding, Connecticut), and the scenery along the Housatonic River (near Stockbridge, Massachusetts) using generous doses of musical quotation.3

Recent thinking about the relationship between music and place has highlighted the way the former invokes and evokes the latter while also anchoring social, cultural, and political beliefs, illustrating the bonds that bring people together as well as the differences that set them apart. Moreover, music is not only made in particular places or "social spaces," it also transforms them.4 For example, while listening to Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," listeners across the country could find their homes aurally reconstructed by the historical and sonic referents to Los Angeles purposefully deployed in the song's musical fabric. In a sense, no matter where the actual act of listening happens, the sonic amalgam of that song recalls a famous rock 'n' roll sound particular to a distinct (and perhaps distant) time and place. Joel thereby continues this tradition of wedding music and place, conjuring geography and space, as well as delimiting boundaries, through both his lyrics and his musical choices. This article discusses two kinds of places found in Joel's songs, geographical (specifically the American West and New York) and social or cultural (suburbia).

Songs about Geographical Places

As a debut album, Cold Spring Harbor had good potential. …

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From "New York State of Mind" to "No Man's Land": Billy Joel's Songs about American Places
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