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Billy Joel wrote Downeaster Alexa in 1989--while he was in jail.

He had been protesting the cutting of fishing rights with local fishermen on Long Island--where Joel grew up.  A bunch of the protesters were arrested, Joel along with them.  While he was locked up, he started to write Downeaster Alexa in tribute to the fishermen of LI who continued to fish every day

while the fish grew more scarce

I know there's fish out there but where God only knows

and the fish that were there were being protected by new laws.

Since they told me I can't sell no stripers

So, the fishermen are forced to go further and further out each year to find fish they can sell

Now I drive my Downeaster Alexa
More and more miles from shore every year

to support their families.

I've got bills to pay and children who need clothes

Valiantly carrying on, because it's the only thing they know how to do

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can't make a living as a bayman anymore

and they won't admit that Long Island isn't the same place it was thirty years ago.

But there ain't no Island left for islanders like me

Alexa Ray Joel is his daughter's name (the Ray for Ray Charles, if I'm not mistaken). Likely the ship is named after his daughter to emphasize the fact that the fishermen are indeed doing this and sacrificing themselves for their families, and to provide an element of personal feeling to the song. Joel is, as RimRod implied, very passionate about this political concern.

It's a very morose, mournful song, with gobs of traditional 80s pop rock melodrama. Much of the album is like this, and it's what makes it maybe his second best in my book (behind The Stranger).

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