Anyone who's heard “We Didn't Start the Fire” by Billy Joel knows it's a song about history. In fact, listen to the lyrics a few times through and you realize just how much history is incorporated into the song. (In 2023, Fall Out Boy even attempted to create a version with events from 1989 to 2023.)
When Joel released “We Didn't Start the Fire” in 1989, it was around the time of his 40th birthday. When it came to writing the song, he told biographer Fred Schruers, “The chain of news events and personalities came easily - mostly they just spilled out of my memory as fast as I could scribble them down.”
In 2009, Joel told Billboard magazine that the single was “terrible musically.” Even if that is the case, it's an intense, engaging lesson in the history that took place between 1948 and 1988. It's chronological in structure and, from start to finish, references 119 people, places, events, and phenomena.
With all that history packed into one song, it's difficult to know exactly what is being referenced. Sometimes, it's not clear what Joel is saying at all. Here's a breakdown of every historical reference in “We Didn't Start the Fire."
After serving a partial term as the President of the United States (following the 1945 passing of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Harry S. Truman won the election of 1948.
Truman's victory over Thomas Dewey surprised a lot of people, including the editors at The Chicago Tribune. They famously - and prematurely - printed an edition of their newspaper declaring Dewey as the winner.
Actress and singer Doris Day made her first movie appearance in 1948 in Romance on the High Seas. She replaced Betty Hutton, who had dropped out. When director Michael Curtiz saw Day, he exclaimed, “This is the most everything dame I have ever seen.”
Day also recorded the hit song “It's Magic” for the film, which was later nominated for an Academy Award.
Considered one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll music, Johnnie Ray was a singer from Oregon who moved to California in 1949, the same year he was discovered. In 1951, he topped the charts with his song “Cry.”
Ray's former manager, Alan Eichler, explained in 2022:
Musically, he’s considered the link between Sinatra and Elvis, and that’s because he brought a rhythm and blues feeling to pop music… His performing style was that of the future.
South Pacific, based on the book of the same name by Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstein II, debuted on Broadway on April 7, 1949. Music by Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) rounded out the musical based on stories from James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. The initial run lasted until 1954.
As a newspaper columnist and radio commentator, Walter Winchell had a long career that earned him national acclaim. His gossip reporting helped craft that entire subset of journalism, and his use of slang allowed him to skirt potential legal action about his claims.