We Didn’t Start the Fire Historical References

Recently, homeschool mom from Florida shared in a Facebook group how she was going to begin a new learning project with her kids: Fire Fridays. Using the song We Didn’t Start the Fire, the family was going to take a timeline tromp through 40 years of history, as sung by Billy Joel. Now, you know I love, love, love randomly exploring learning connections, so this idea really grabbed my attention: Listening for We Didn’t Start the Fire historical references.

The song first came out in 1989. I was in college, so I missed all those middle and high school lessons Millenials did with this song. And frankly, I don’t think I ever really paid close attention to all the references. So, I took some time today to relisten to this moldie oldie #1 hit.

Did you hear that? Billy Joel just sang 119 historical references in a bit over 4-minutes. But, what exactly is he bringing attention to? What are the We Didn’t Start the Fire historical references? Just as importantly, are all his references even worth reading up on? I mean, he calls out exactly THREE positive female role models: Princess Grace, the Queen of England, and astronaut Sally Ride. The other 3 women mentioned in the song are pretty much known for being sex symbols (not that there’s anything wrong with being a sex symbol, just not my top choice for study topic).

Okay, misogyny aside, let’s take a look at what the song is all fired up about. I’m going to list the topics as they appear in the lyrics, but I’m going to group them into themes.

US Political Figures

  • Harry Truman
  • Walter Winchell
  • Joe MCarthy
  • Roy Cohn
  • Richard Nixon
  • Eisenhower
  • Kennedy
  • Richard Nixon back again
  • Reagan

US Notable Events

  • JFK Blown away
  • Watergate
  • Birth control
  • Foreign debt
  • Homeless vets
  • Crack

American Civil Rights

  • Alabama
  • Little Rock
  • Ole Miss
  • Malcom X

American Crime

  • Rosenbergs
  • Starkweather homicide
  • Payola
  • Mafia
  • Bernie Goetz

Cold War and Communism

  • H-bomb
  • Joseph Stalin
  • Malenkov
  • Communist Bloc
  • Budapest
  • Khrushchev
  • U-2
  • Castro
  • Bay of Pigs invasion
  • Russians in Afghanistan
  • Red China
  • Dien Bien Phu falls
  • Chou En-Lai
  • China’s under martial law
  • North Korea
  • South Korea
  • P’anmunjom
  • Syngman Rhee

Egypt – Israel – Surrounding Area

  • Nasser
  • Trouble in the Suez
  • Lebanon
  • Eichman
  • Begin
  • Palestine
  • Ayatollah in Iran

Other International News

  • Belgian in Congo
  • Berlin
  • British politician sex
  • Terror on the airline

Other Notable People

  • England’s got a new queen
  • Santayana
  • Rockefeller
  • Juan Perón
  • Einstein
  • Princess Grace
  • Charles de Gaulle
  • Pope Paul
  • Ho Chi Minh (although the song could also be referring to the city of the same name)

Space Race

  • Sputnik
  • Space Monkey
  • John Glenn
  • Moonshot
  • Sally Ride


  • Joe DiMaggio
  • Sugar Ray
  • Marcianno
  • Campanella
  • Brooklyn’s got a winning team
  • Mickey Mantel
  • California baseball
  • Liston beats Patterson

Actors, Music, and Rock Stars

  • Doris Day
  • Johnnie Ray
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Brando
  • Liberace
  • Prokofiev
  • Toscanini
  • Rock Around the Clock
  • James Dean
  • Elivs Presley
  • Bardot
  • Buddy Holly
  • Chubby Checker
  • Dylan
  • British Beatlemania
  • Woodstock
  • Punk rock
  • Heavy metal suicide

Books and Movies

  • South Pacific
  • The King and I
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • Davy Crockett
  • Peter Pan
  • Paternak (Doctor Zhivago)
  • Kerouac (On the Road)
  • Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Ben Hur
  • Psycho
  • Hemingway
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Lawrence of Arabia

Medicine Related

  • Vaccine
  • Dacron
  • Children of Thalidomide
  • AIDS
  • Hypodermics on the shore

Pop Culture

  • Studebaker
  • Edsel
  • Television
  • Peyton Place
  • Wheel of Fortune
  • Disneyland
  • Hula hoops
  • Rock and roller cola wars

That’s quite the list of people and events to work your way through. Of course, you can work your way through this song list in any number of ways. But, if you decide to focus on one event or person a day, it’ll be 3-months before you get through all the We Didn’t Start the Fire historical references. Chances are, interest will wane before you get done.

Here are a few ideas for other ways to get you started on this musical adventure.

American Presidents

Billy Joel names five American presidents in the song: Truman, Eisenhow, Nixon (twice), Kennedy, and Reagan. But, why these 5? Harry Truman, for example was a known racist, yet civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King admired the President’s civil rights records (for a short time, at least). What do you think? Could there have been a better choice of president to sing about from 1949 – 1989?


Take a look at the list of sports figures. Out of 40 years of history, Billy Joel focuses exclusively on baseball players and boxers. Now, I get it – women’s sports didn’t really get much support until the late 1960s with the passage of Title IX. Still, Billie Jean King’s famous Battle of the Sexes historic tennis match could have found a place in We Didn’t Start the Fire. Elton John even wrote his song, Philadelphia Freedom about the legendary tennis player. What other athletes during that 40-year period would you have considered for Billy Joel’s song, if you had been the one writing it?

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Rock and Roll

Many people consider Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock to be the song that made rock and roll, as a music genre, famous way back in 1954. About a decade later, Beatlemania swept the UK and America, with teen girls going ga-ga over rock stars for the first time ever. In the case of “some things never change”, try to identify other bands throughout the decades that have created such a teen-throb sensation. Who would you put on the list: Van Halen? Boyz II Men? K-pop group BTS? What female singers with powerful posses of fans could’ve been included?

Updating the Lyrics

In early 2023, Fall Out Boy released their own, updated version of We Didn’t Start the Fire. Unlike Billy Joel’s original, this remake does not go in chronological order, so the historical references can feel a bit all over the place. Still, it’s easy to notice some pretty major omissions.

If you’re singing about trash fires, then where the heck is mention of the covid pandemic or the reversal of Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court? And, speaking of the Supreme Court, Fall Out Boy is singing about John Bobbit and his notoriously, surgically reattached penis, but we couldn’t get a mention of the Notorious RBG?!?!

Still, the Fall Out Boy’s updated version of We Didn’t Start the Fire offers some historical connections., when you compare it to the original. Consider these questions:

  1. What does Princess Grace and Meghan Markle have in common?
  2. When you compare fads acros different decades, how would you describe hula hoops to Pokemon?
  3. JFK and Shinzo Abe are both “blown away”. Who are they and what happened?
  4. To a certain extent, the original Woodstock and Fyre Fest both had lousy organizers, yet one music festival became an historic success and the other was an utter disaster. Why?

If you find that you and your kids get a kick out of analyzing historical references in music, check out our curated lists of songs to help you make this an all out unit study.



Alessa Giampaolo Keener, M.Ed. homeschooled her children from kindergarten into college. Over the last 15+ years, she has also worked with families in creating individualized learning plans. As a professional curriculum developer, Alessa has created afterschool youth development programs for a Baltimore-based nonprofit, as well as teaching materials for homeschool parents and brick and mortar school teachers.