Over two decades ago I was subbing in a high school history class. Because the way it works for subs in high school, pretty much all I had to do was hit play on the movie and that was it. This left me lots of time to look around the room and see all the things, and observe. The teacher had a poster of the song We Didn’t Start the Fire, and for the first time, I really thought about the lyrics. It’s a history lesson disguised as a pop song, and that’s when I knew someday I wanted to do a We Didn’t Start the Fire history lesson.
Sadly, I completely forgot to do this lesson with my kids officially while they were in high school.
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We Didn’t Start the Fire history lesson materials
In ordinary circumstances, I would make a printable for you with the lyrics to print out, but these are still under copyright, and I really don’t want to take away from the copyright, instead I’m linking to a site with the lyrics and you can print them out yourself.
History lesson 1
The first thing to do with this is just look and see, are the events in the song in chronological order?
It’s a question I’ve always asked myself, but never sat down to think about.
A very helpful feature for the lyrics site I linked it, each person and event is linked to with why it is important and what year it took place in.
But, for making this a history lesson that takes work. I would split up the verses and have kids search up each name or location listed. There are five verses, so split people into five groups and each group takes a verse. Grab those pens and start taking notes.
Now, I know the events are all in chronological order. Actually, I learned from the site Billy Joel was doing a thought exercise, Can I name events from each year of my life?
History lesson 2 from We Didn’t Start the Fire
Billy Joel chose events from his memory or that he’d heard about, but think about the types of events he chose.
Some are historical events, some are pop-culture, some are sports, some are scientific triumphs, and some are literary.
Which is the most common type of event? Or which do you think actually had more impact on the world?
Okay, I’m actually watching the official music video for the first time as I write this, and that’s a really interesting video to watch. It’s changing time periods and basically like he’s growing up as the video goes on.
Have you ever seen the music video? Back to that history lesson
This is where the highlighters come in, and why having lots of different colors is handy. Pick which type of event each color represents and start highlighting.
Then start arguing with people, are pop culture and music the same thing? So would you put Elvis Presley in the same category as Peter Pan and Disneyland?
So maybe the first question is what categories do you use?
It’s an interesting lesson and interesting question.
Final We Didn’t Start the Fire history lesson
Now turn it back to the kids, what would you put down for your life? What are the changing events of your time?
This became an even more fascinating question after Fall Out Boy created their own version of the song with updated lyrics starting in 1989.
As I listened to this version I kept thinking, I don’t know if I would have included that, what about this thing that was left out?
It’s interesting because the tone of the song is different.
Also, this song is not in chronological order like the Billy Joel song, so you really could do put the song in order lesson with it.
But I started with events from my life, I would have to search it up events from some years, and also verify when some events took place. I was just realizing Billy Joel’s song doesn’t include the Berlin Wall!
If I did this for my life:
- 1979- Iran Hostage Crisis
- 1980- Regaen elected
- 1984- Olympics!
- 1986- Challenger explosion
- 1988- Bush senior
- 1989- fall of Berlin Wall
Like, I would have to do research, this was my 30-second brainstorm until I was twelve, and I had to look up the exact year for the Challenger explosion and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and most years I have nothing written down.
Going back to Billy Joel’s lyrics, there are some years with nothing going on and some years with many things going on other years. Most of the 1970s don’t have anything going on according to the song.
I think it could also be fun to create a version of the song picking other time periods. Back in 2020, there was a list that was going around of what life was like for people born in 1900, how much their life changed in a short period of time. You could have someone who was a preschooler when man first flies in a plane and is just about to retire when man walks on the moon.
Think about the change in that.
So imagine the song you might write from that. Instead of JFK blown away, McKinley blown away, or Stock Market crashed.
Reactions to the Fall Out Boy song
And because I was looking up the songs on YouTube to find the music videos, sadly Fall Out Boy doesn’t have one, yet…
I found reactions to the video talking about it, which fascinate me, so I’m really curious if you’ve seen this?
Okay, I watched parts of a few more, and this is the best reaction to the song I’ve seen, so I won’t even bother including the others.
All in all, you can see why almost forty years later we still listen to the song and talk about it.
More history and pop culture
I don’t have a lot of history and pop culture posts, though I do have a few history at the movies posts. Huh, that is practically a series here…
- Six the Musical, King Henry VIII’s wives
- Great Depression movie list
- Cartoons and pandemic
- World War 2 movies
- Paul Rever and the Boston Massacre– how a political cartoon (that’s my pop culture reference) led to the American Revolution