Songs of the Rust Belt

When I was a little girl my mom used to sing me an old cheer called “We’re Strong for Toledo.” My grandma used to sing me John Denver’s “Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio.” The songs portrayed two very different cities: one a proud metropolis, the other a laughing stock.

I thought it might be interesting to look at the most famous songs devoted to Rust Belt as a way to examine how these cities are portrayed in pop culture, and also how that image has changed over the years.

For example, the song my mother used to sing to me, judging by the slang, was written in the 1950s or sooner, Toledo’s heyday. It goes like this:

We’re strong for Toledo, T-O-L-E-D-O

The girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest of any old town that we know.

We’re strong for Toledo, the place where the Maumee flows,

We’ll all join Together in all types of weather for Toledo O-H-I-O


The John Denver song my grandma used to sing was written in the ‘70s or ‘80s, after the American auto industry began its downward spiral. Attitudes were obviously shifting:

Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio, is like being nowhere at all

All through the day how the hours rush by

You sit in the park and you watch the grass die

Ah, but after the sunset, the dusk and the twilight

When shadows of night start to fall

They roll back the sidewalks precisely at ten

And people who live there are not seen again

Just two lonely truckers from Great Falls, Montana

And a salesman from places unknown – ces unknown

All huddled together in downtown Toledo

To spend their big night all alone

You ask how I know of Toledo, Ohio

Well I spent a week there one day

They’ve got entertainment to dazzle your eyes

Go visit the bakery and watch the buns rise

Ah, but let’s not forget that the folks of Toledo

Unselfishly gave us the scales

No springs, honest weight, that’s the promise they made

So smile and be thankful next time you get weighed

And wive and wet wive

Let this be our motto

Let’s let the sleeping dogs lie – ping dogs lie

And here’s to the dogs of Toledo, Ohio

Ladies, we bid you goodbye.

Everyone knows Bruce Sprinsteen’s “Youngstown.” A lot of Youngstowners really resent the song and think its defamatory but I really like it. It’s a tribute to the working man and it’s full of interesting historical facts. Plus, it’s got this “Damn The Man” feeling that I think is really consistent with Youngstown overall. Let’s examine, shall we?

Here in north east Ohio

Back in eighteen-o-three

James and Danny Heaton

Found the ore that was linin’ Yellow Creek

They built a blast furnace

Here along the shore

And they made the cannon balls

That helped the union win the war

Here in Youngstown

Here in Youngstown

My sweet Jenny**, I’m sinkin’ down

Here darlin’ in Youngstown

Well my daddy worked the furnaces

Kept ’em hotter than hell

I come home from ‘Nam worked my way to Scarfer***

A job that’d suit the devil as well

Taconite, coke and limestone

Fed my children and made my pay

Then smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of god

Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay

Here in Youngstown

Here in Youngstown

My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down

Here darlin’ in Youngstown

Well my daddy come on the Ohio Works ****

When he come home from World War Two

Now the yards just scrap and rubble

He said, “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do”

These mills they built the tanks and bombs

That won this country’s wars

We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam

Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for

Here in Youngstown

Here in Youngstown

My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down

Here darlin’ in Youngstown

From the Monongahela Valley

To the Mesabi iron range

To the coal mines of Appalacchia

The story’s always the same

Seven-hundred tons of metal a day

Now sir you tell me the world’s changed

Once I made you rich enough

Rich enough to forget my name

In Youngstown

In Youngstown

My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down

Here darlin’ in Youngstown

When I die I don’t want no part of heaven

I would not do heavens work well

I pray the devil comes and takes me

To stand in the fiery furnaces of hell

** Sweet Jenny: Jeannette blast furnace of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company


*** Scarfer: burns off any irregularities of finished steel

**** Ohio Works: Youngstown Steel Mill

Course, we all know “Sweet Home Chicago” by the Blues Brothers. Happy melody, pretty meaningless lyrics. Still fun if you’re from The Windy City. I’m sure there’s dozens more.

Come on

Oh baby don’t you wanna’ go?

Come on

Oh baby don’t you wanna’ go?

Back to that same old place

Sweet home Chicago

Come on

Baby don’t you wanna’ go?


Baby don’t you wanna’ go

Back to that same old place

Oh sweet home Chicago

Well, one and one is two

Six and two is eight

Come on baby don’t ya make me late


Baby don’t you wanna’ go

Back to that same old place

Sweet home Chicago

Come on

Baby don’t you wanna’ go?

Back to that same old place

Sweet home Chicago

Six and three is nine

Nine and nine is eighteen

Look there brother baby and see what I’ve seen


Baby don’t you wanna’ go?

Back to that same old place

Sweet home Chicago

Oh come on

Baby don’t you wanna’ go

Come on

Baby don’t you wanna’ go?

Back to that same old place

Sweet home Chicago

Detroit has “Detroit Rock City” by Kiss, which really gives the city a lot of street cred, in my opinion. This, of course, was a movie starring Natasha Lyonne. It starts out with this funky news report …

“…congressional reports. President Ford says that he’s disappointed with Congress’s performance. In Detroit, a Pontiac,

Michigan youth was reported dead at the scene of a head-on collision on Grand Avenue this morning. The youth was reportedly

driving on the wrong side of the boulevard when he struck a delivery truck and was catapulted through the windshild of his

car. The driver of the truck is reported to be uninjured. The identities of both men are being withheld by local police.

County legislatives today are expected to rally to the aid of striking longshoremen in hopes of ending the 9 month


“…and roll all nite and party every day

I wanna rock and roll all nite and party every day…”

I feel uptight on a Saturday night

Nine o’clock, the radio’s the only light

I hear my song and it pulls me through

Comes on strong, tells me what I got to do, I got to

Get up, everybody’s gonna move their feet

Get down, everybody’s gonna leave their seat

You gotta lose your mind in Detroit rock city

Get up, everybody’s gonna move their feet

Get down, everybody’s gonna leave their seat

Getting late

I just can’t wait

Ten o’clock and I know I gotta hit the road

First I drink, then I smoke

Start up the car, and I try to make the midnight show

Get up, everybody’s gonna move their feet

Get down, everybody’s gonna leave their seat

Movin’ fast, doin’ 95

Hit top speed but I’m still movin’ much too slow

I feel so good, I’m so alive

I hear my song playin’ on the radio, it goes

Get up, everybody’s gonna move their feet

Get down, everybody’s gonna leave their seat

Twelve o’clock, I gotta rock

There’s a truck ahead, lights starin’ at my eyes

Oh my God, no time to turn

I got to laugh ’cause I know I’m gonna die, why

Get up, everybody’s gonna move their feet

Get up, everybody’s gonna leave their seat

Here’s a really weird one that was written for the 1933 movie Forty-Second Street: “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”

I don’t even know what to say about that.

St. Louis has a classic called “St. Louis Blues.” Pretty old blues song. It has a Southern feel.

My favorite Rust Belt song is a modern one though and it’s dedicated to the city of Minneapolis. The song was written my Twin City-native Atmosphere, who is kind of an icon on the “underground rap” scene (this is like the emo of rap, no ho’s and bling).

Anyway, I first heard this song when I moved back from Atlanta to Columbus and I was 21 years old and it changed my life.


Such a pleasure to come home
Cuz I…I have a very special love for this city

Well all right, well okay [x3]
Well all right [x3]

I wanted to make a song about where I’m from
You know? Big up my home town, my territory, my state
But, I couldn’t figure out much to brag about
Prince lives here, we got 10,000 lakes
But wait, the women are beautiful, to me they are
And we’re not infested with pretentious movie stars
And it hit me, Minnesota is dope
If only simply for not what we have but what we don’t
It’s all fair, it ain’t out there, it’s in there
It’s in the mirror, behind the breast under the hair
Follow the dream doesn’t mean leave the love
Roam if you must, but come home when you’ve seen enough
I love New York and Cali, but I ain’t movin’
Too overpopulated saturated with humans
And I’m not big on rappers, actors, or models
If I had to dip, I’d probably skip to Chicago
None of this is to diss no one, nowhere
Like damn, I’m from Minnesota, land of the cold air
Too many mosquitoes and our fair share of egos
But like my man Sabe says, that’s where my mommy stays

So if the people laugh and giggle when you tell em where you live
Say shhh, say shhh
And if you know this is where you wanna raise your kids
Say shhh, say shhh
If you’re from the Midwest and it doesn’t matter where
Say shhh, say shhh
If you can drink tap water and breathe the air
Say shhh, say shhh

Got trees and vegetation in the city I stay
The rent’s in the mail and I can always find a parking space
The women outnumber the men two to one
Got parks and zoos and things to do with my son
The nightlife ain’t all that, but that’s okay
I don’t need to be distracted by the devil every day
And the jobs ain’t really too hard to find
In fact, you could have mine if you knew how to rhyme
This is for everyone around the planet
That wishes they were from somewhere other than where they standin’
Don’t take it for granted, instead take a look around
Quit complaining and build something on that ground
Plant something on that ground, dance and sleep on that ground
Get on your hands and knees and watch the ants walk around
That ground Make a family, make magic, make a mess
Take the stress, feel your motivation and build your nest
It sucks that you think where I’m from is wack
But as long as that’s enough to keep your ass from coming back
And with a smile and a hint of sarcasm, he said
“I beg your pardon but this is my secret garden”

All right
(In the land of ice and snow)
Well okay
(In the land of ice and snow)
Well all right
(In the land of ice and snow)
Well okay
(Minneapolis, Minneapolis, Minneapolis, Minneapolis)

[Repeat Chorus]

If the playground is clear of stems and syringes
Say shhh, say shhh
If there’s only one store in your town that sells 12-inches
Say shhh, say shhh
If no one in your crew walks around with a gun
Say shhh, say shhh
And if you ain’t gonna leave cause this is where you’re from
Say shhh, say shhh

Well alright, well okay [repeated in background]
St. Cloud, Minnesota
Mankato, Minnesota
Duluth, Minnesnowta
Kansas City
St Louis, Missouri
Columbia, Missouri
Oshkosh, Wisconsin
Cincinnati, Ohio
Columbus, Ohio
Boulder, Colorado
Lawrence, Kansas
Tulsa, Oklahoma
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Say shhh..
Minneapolis [repeat to fade]

It was kind of a corny, figuring it all out, 21-year-old moment, but that was the first time I ever heard something like that. Every message I received my whole life had told me Ohio was inferior. So I moved away and the weather was great and then everyone I loved was somewhere else.

Anyway, I love that guy. He even mentions Columbus.

Thanks to Tony Giammarise and and Randy Vines for the the musical guidance.



Filed under Art, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Songs of the Rust Belt

  1. ndb

    Of course you also have tons and tons of old labor & folks songs related to the rust belt. Two of my favorites are the 1913 Massacre (Woody Guthrie)- about an attack on miners in Calumet, MI – and the Erie Canal Song (?).

  2. Paz

    It’s been quite some time, but we had “Pittsburgh Town” and “He Lies in the American Land”, both done by Guthrie and covered by Seeger.

    I think that postindustrial songs have transcended geographic location though. “Allentown” and “Atlantic City” are songs about the culture that is certainly not exclusive to the Midwest.

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  5. What about Buffalo Gals? Not really rust belt references but a better song than Shuffle. I love the Springsteen song but did not know the steel references so thanks for that. Also, if you listen to an old recording of Sweet Home Chicago (or a version done by a Chicago bluesman or Kokko Taylor), then I think it sounds and feels a whole lot different than the Blue Brothers which is a much later, entertaining take on the song. After all, it was supposedly penned by Robert Johnson which gives it a lot of moxie.

  6. Vince

    No love for Chrissie Hynde’s “My City Was Gone?”

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