Billy Joel is a history teacher

March 3, 2009

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I wake up every morning to the Billy Joel song We Didn’t Start the Fire. I’m not a particularly big fan of Billy Joel (although I also like “Piano Man”), but this one particular song is one of my all time favorites. My daughter (18 months old) also likes it a lot.

Not only is the song pleasing to the ear, but it also works as a great jumping off point for a history lesson. History seems to be a forgotten subject these days, so why not use music to create an interest in history? Most of you have heard the song, but do you really know all of the correct lyrics? The first time I saw the written lyrics, my curiosity was piqued and I had to immediately research some of the names and events. I’ll give short explanations of some of the lyrics to get you started. I’ve included the complete lyrics at the end of the post (hopefully I got most of the lyrics correct) – go ahead and research some of the others on your own.

Johnnie Ray – Ray overcame deafness in both ears to become a major music star of the 1950s.

Panmunjom – Panmunjom, Korea, was the site of truce talks during the Korean war. A sticky point was the topic of how to handle prisoners of war. Some had been brainwashed and others who did not want to return to their countries. On July 23, 1953, the United Nations, China, and North Korea (but not South Koreas) signed a truce.

Malenkov – Georgy Malenkov succeeded Joseph Stalin as leader of Russia’s communist party. He was an opponent of nuclear armament. He was forced out of the post after two years, and eventually forced out of the government completely after his involvment in a failed attempt to unseat Krushchev.

Dien Bien Phu falls – The French stronghold of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam (French Indochina at that time) fell victim to a siege by the Viet Minh during the first Indochina war. The French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu in May, 1954, effectively ending their presence in Vietnam.

Zhou Enlai (alternate spelling Chou En-Lai) was a leader of the Chinese communist party. Zhou was a comrade of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) and served as China’s foreign minister and later as chairman of the Chinese communist party. He advocated peaceful coexistence with the west.

Children of thalidomide – Thalidomide was sold to pregnant women as a method to prevent morning sickness and a sleeping aid. Thousands of children were born with birth defects that were linked to thalidomide, and the drug was banned.

Payola – In the 1950s and 1960s, record companies began a practice of paying disc jockeys to play specific songs. This was illegal, and ruined the career of star disc jockey Alan Freed (and others) when he testified that he had accepted payola.

Bernie Goetz – Goetz was attacked by four men on a subway in New York City in 1984. Goetz shot his four attackers, rendering one a paraplegic and seriously wounding the other three. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and multiple gun law violations. A jury found him not guilty on nearly every charge. He did spend eight months in jail as a result of being found guilty of a firearms violation. The Goetz incident gained national exposure to the topics of crime and self-defense.

Billy Joel, Greatest Hits 3 features We Didn’t Start the Fire. You might consider buying it from my store at The same Amazon price, the same Amazon service – but I get a small commission on the sale.

** Lyrics for We Didn’t Start the Fire **

We Didn’t Start the Fire

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio

Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

Rosenbergs, H-bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, The King and I and The Catcher in the Rye

Eisenhower, vaccine, England’s got a new queen
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

Joseph Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev
Rockefeller, Campanella, Communist Bloc

Roy Cohn, Juan Peron, Toscanini, dacron
Dien Bien Phu falls, Rock Around the Clock

Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team
Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland

Bardot, Budapest, Alabama, Krushchev
Princess Grace, Peyton Place, trouble in the Suez


Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Zhou Enlai, Bridge on the River Kwai

Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball
Starkweather homicide, children of thalidomide

Buddy Holly, Ben Hur, space monkey, Mafia
Hula hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go

U-2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo


Hemingway, Eichmann, Stranger in a Strange Land
Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion

Lawrence of Arabia, British Beatlemania
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson

Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British politician sex
JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say


Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock
Begin, Reagan, Palestine, terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore


We didn’t start the fire
But when we are gone
Will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on

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