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Billy Joel: The Fire, The Facts, and The Story


Billy Joel: The Fire, The Facts, and The Story
by John Ohliger

July 30, 1990

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray” —So begins the roll call of 120 persons, places, and events in Billy Joel’s No. 1 hit song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel has taken his self-described “history lesson” on the road for a concert tour stretching to the fall of 1991. It’s also available on a fast selling single, on his latest album Storm Front, and on an explosive video.


This is the second in an occasional series on adult educators you don’t ordinarily so label. The first one was on Carly Simon and her informal adult education efforts around “Let the River Run,” her theme song for the recent film Working Girl (ACET, August 7, 1989).

Because of the controversy over his history lesson, Joel is an even more obvious choice. The song has made him the focus of bouquets and brickbats from educators, journalists, and critics for its value (or lack of it) as an aid in learning about history, especially for young adults. Over 40,000 cassettes of the song have been distributed by Scholastic, Inc., to high schools enrolling more than one million students. But in an accompanying taped talk Joel reveals he didn’t graduate from high school. While making strong appeals to young adults to learn all they can, he never recommends staying in school or going on to higher education. He calls himself “self-taught”—a self-directed learner—and he exhorts others to take up this form of adult education, to en-roll in “The Invisible University,” as Ron Gross labels it in this newsletter.

The song has also landed Joel smack in the middle of two broader, raging controversies: What is education; is it absorbing information or discovering meaning? And, what is history; is it facts or stories?

“Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team” —“Einstein” and “Brooklyn” in the song are on the approved “cultural literacy” list of “what every American needs to know,” devised by educator E.D. Hirsch in his best-selling books. Almost half of Joel’s 120 items are on the cultural literacy list. Hirsch pushes absorbing information as the most urgent purpose of organized learning. But the editors of a book on “multi-cultural literacy” claim Hirsch suffers from a “white, male, academic, eastern U.S. Eurocentric bias that severely limits” the value of this approach for a country that is otherwise and is becoming even more ethnically diverse every day. Only two of Joel’s terms are on the multi-cultural literacy list.

“We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning. Since the world’s been turning” —these lines from the song’s chorus are echoed in the views of the supporters of another best-seller, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom supporters and others believe trying to learn more and more facts and figures is useless unless their meaning is discovered in stories, theories, or in the so-called “Great Books.” Perhaps the songwriter William Martin Joel—and all of us—could benefit from what another song-writer named William wrote 400 years ago in a great book, “Too much to know is to know naught but fame.” In William Shakespeare’s day “fame” also meant “secondhand information” and “rumor.”

“Marciano, Liberace, Santayana Goodbye,” includes Joel’s tribute to George Santayana, the great American philosopher of history. Santayana is best known for his statement—as Joel paraphrases it in interviews—“If we don’t learn from the mistakes of history, we’re doomed to repeat them.” The issue bedeviling us all is: How do we figure out what the mistakes of history are? Will knowledge of the important facts help us? Santayana and other philosophers of history think acquiring such knowledge is virtually an impossible task. We can only know what a mistake is, if we know what is right and wrong—if we have a shape, an ethical context, to fit facts into. How to understand history is an urgent question. As Joel asks in interviews, have we learned from our mistakes in Vietnam? Or as many others are now asking—since German reunification looms—have the mistakes of the Nazi past been overcome?

“We didn’t start the fire. No we didn’t light it. But we tried to fight it,” writes Joel in his chorus, which has brought many attacks on him for “whining,” blaming others, and concluding that little can be done to improve our lot. Critics forget that the song is a work of imagination, and doesn’t necessarily present the view of its author. But if it does, the point may be that celebrities like Joel are just ordinary people with their problems and virtues writ large, sometimes monstrously large. Celebrities could stand out as symbols of dilemmas we all face—or avoid facing. If that’s true, Joel and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” are very good examples of these fundamental dilemmas. Aren’t we all caught up in the “information rage,” while searching for a story to tie together all the facts that constantly bombard us? At least he has put a few of the facts into chronological and rhythmic order, while making a start at his own story, as controversial as it is. “We didn’t start this stuff,” Billy Joel concludes in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “We inherited it. No matter how much you try, the world is going to be a mess. All you can do is the best you can and maybe make the world immediately around you a better place.

”If you’re looking for ways to involve your adult basic education, literacy, GED, or other students in the issues we’ve focused on in this column, consider offering them “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for study and discussion. Many educators have found this a worthwhile approach as they try to teach the facts in some meaningful context. To help you I’ve put together a 30-page paper, The Fire, The Facts, & The Story, with background information on all 120 items in the song, plus quotations from 65 indexed bibliographic sources dealing with all the questions raised here and many others. Send nine dollars in advance to Basic Choices/Fire 730 W. Jefferson, Springfield, IL 62702.

John Ohliger is the Director of Basic Choices, Inc., A Midwest Center for Clarifying Political and Social Options.


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