The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1949
Created | Updated Jun 22, 2007
Title Page | 1949 | 1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964-1989 (Part 1) | 1964-1989 (Part 2) | 1964-1989 (Part 3)
Harry Truman, Doris Day
Red China, Johnny Ray,
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
The year of Billy Joel's birth - 1949 - also saw the first around-the-world flight, the formation of NATO, snow in California, and the independence of both Indonesia and Bhutan. Joel managed to capture many of the more important events of the year in his first verse:
On 12 April, 1945 the world was fighting a global war. In Europe the Allied Armies had crossed the Rhine and were beginning the sweep across Germany. The Soviet forces were advancing from the east squeezing the Third Reich into a position of ultimate defeat. On the other side of the world the battle for Iwo Jima had just finished and the invasion of Okinawa had just begun. Between these two great battle fronts the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was receiving physical therapy in a resort in Warm Springs, Georgia. While relaxing in a friend's room he suffered a fatal cerebral haemorrhage. His Vice President, Harry S Truman, after only 83 days in office, was now the leader of one of the greatest nations of the world.
Before the Presidency
Harry S Truman was born on 8 May, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri and was raised in the town of Independence on the outskirts of Kansas City. After working in a few odd jobs in Kansas City he took over the running of the family farm in 1906. He served as an artillery lieutenant in World War I. When he returned from the war he married Elizabeth Virginia Wallace. They opened a haberdashery1 in Kansas City. Having become active in the local Democratic political party he was elected judge of the Jackson County Court in 1922. He began attending classes at a local law school during this period. In 1934 he was elected to the US Senate where he enthusiastically supported the 'New Deal'. After having been re-elected to the Senate in a close race he was chosen by Roosevelt to run with him in the 1944 Elections.
As soon as Truman assumed the presidency he discovered how little he had been told about the war effort. His biggest surprise was undoubtedly the development of the Atomic Bomb. He become the first, and only, person to authorize these weapons to be used against human targets. Japan surrendered shortly after the destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He implemented the 'Marshall Plan' to help rebuild war-ravaged Europe and introduced 'The Fair Deal' in the US as an extension of Roosevelt's social programs. When the Soviets refused to allow Allied trucks to supply the multinational city of Berlin within their sector of occupied Germany he instituted the 'Berlin Air Lift'.
After a close election in 1948 Truman won the presidency for a second term. In a famous photograph he is shown proudly holding up a newspaper with the headline 'Dewey defeats Truman'. The paper had obviously not waited for the actual results. In 1950 Communist troops from the northern area of Korea fought their way into the south and threatened to overtake the entire peninsula. Truman received permission from the United Nations for a 'police action' and sent a force of US military along with units from other countries into combat to support South Korea. Afraid that Red China and the Soviet Union might declare support for the North Koreans he ordered limitations on missions. General Douglas MacAurther publicly disagreed with Truman's policy. Truman removed the General from his command. Faced with very low popularity among the American people he declined to seek a third term.
After the Presidency
After leaving office Truman's legacy became appreciated and he became a respected elder statesman. He passed away in Independence on 26 December, 1972.
1949 saw the rise to fame of Doris Day with films such as Romance on the High Seas, My Dream is Yours and It's A Great Feeling.
Japanese Occupation (1931-1945) and World War II (1939-1945) had put a temporary moratorium on the power struggle that had existed in China between Mao Tse-Tung's communists and the democratic nationalist Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-Shek. At one time united against the warlords that ruled much of China in the power-vacuum left by Sun Yat-Sen's nationalist revolution of 1911, the two factions had been at odds since 1927 when Chiang had determined to ensure the red tide of communism never washed over China.
However, the defeat of the Japanese and the end of the war meant that the gloves were back on. The difference was that whereas in the 1930s, Mao had been on the run from Chiang, it was Mao's communists that were liberating and winning the popular support of large areas of northern China. Moreover, during the occupation, and contrary to the inept and corrupt Kuomintang, the communists had harassed and stood up to the Japanese, had seized and redistributed land from landlords branded as collaborators, and had generally enhanced their reputation among the people.
Thus, battle-hardened and with the support of a two-million strong agrarian militia, Mao's Red Army easily resisted the first Kuomintang offensive in 1947, resulting in mass nationalist desertion. The following year, Mao launched a counter-offensive and never looked back. By April 1949, his Red Army was advancing across the Yangtze River, and quite literally chased the Kuomintang into the sea, Chiang Kai-Shek fleeing from the mainland to the nearby island of Taiwan.
Then, on 1 October 1949, Mao Tse-Tung, from a platform above the archway at the entrance to Beijing's Forbidden City, declared the inauguration of the People's Republic of China. Mao Tse-Tung's revolution was complete, and Red China was born.
John Alvin 'Johnnie' Ray was born on 10 January, 1927 in Dallas, Oregon. He was of North American Indian origin and heavily influenced by Rhythm and Blues and Gospel music. At the age of 12 he lost the sense of hearing in his right ear and had to wear a hearing aid for the rest of his life.
He soon began performing in the clubs and bars of Detroit, singing to his own piano accompaniment. Although mentioned in the 1949 verse of We Didn't Start The Fire, he didn't sign a record contract or become truly popular until 1951. He was a white man singing with a black man's voice, noted for his emotional performances in which he showed anguish, despair and often sobbed. This earned him the nicknames of 'Prince of Wails' and 'Nabob of Sob'. His most famous song from 1951, which he used as his signature tune, was Cry - a multi-million seller. He was notoriously hated by Frank Sinatra - possibly because Tony Bennett called him 'the father of rock'n'roll' - and his vocal abilities were widely acknowledged and admired.
His overtly sexual performances shocked parents and thrilled teenagers in the US. One of his later records, Such a Night, was banned by several radio stations. Despite this he still landed a minor role in the film There's No Business Like Show Business. By this time, however, rumours about his personal life were rife. More than once he was arrested for soliciting (preferring a bisexual lifestyle) and drug-taking. To escape the censorship of the USA he concentrated on the UK market netting 3 top ten hits between 1952 and 1957. He still risked performing in the US, however, and made regular appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. As music styles changed he reverted back to cabaret. Increasingly dependant on alcohol, he died of liver failure in 1990.
On 7 April, 1949 the musical stage play South Pacific premiered on Broadway in New York City, USA. Taken from stories in James A Michener's Tales of the South Pacific the play was written and scored by the famous team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
The setting is an island 'somewhere in the South Pacific' where a group of Seabees2 are preparing to invade an enemy-held island. The apparent leader of the Seabees is an enlisted man named Luther Billis (Myron McCormick) who has set up a private business venture selling everything from laundry services to souvenirs. He is supplied with the latter by a Polynesian called Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), a shrewd businesswoman.
Nellie and Emile
Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mary Martin) is a young woman from Little Rock, Arkansas, who has met and fallen in love with a French planter, Emile De Beque (Enzio Pinza). She is disturbed when she finds out Emile has two young children who are half Polynesian. Emile explains that their mother, who had been his wife, had died years before. Nellie decides to ask for a transfer and uses her work in the upcoming Thanksgiving show to avoid Emile.
Joe and Liat
A young US Marine Corps officer, Lt Joseph Cable (William Tabbert) arrives on the island hoping to convince Emile to help him hide on a Japanese-held island to watch the enemy's movements. When Emile refuses, because he is in love with Nellie, Joe decides to accept Bloody Mary's invitation to visit her island of Bali Ha'i. Bloody Mary introduces Joe to her beautiful young daughter Liat (Betta St John). Although they fall deeply in love Joe realises that his family would never accept his marriage to a Polynesian girl.
The Thanksgiving Show
Emile finally confronts Nellie, who is with Joe after the spectacular Thanksgiving show and confronts her about her views on his children's race. Nellie says she can not explain and runs off. Joe realises that he has the same problem and explains to Emile in the song 'You've Got to be Carefully Taught'. Joe and Emile depart together and become Coast Watchers in enemy territory.
The play ends with Nellie taking care of Emile's children when he walks up the path to his home. Unfortunately Joe Cable was killed before they could be removed from the enemy island.
The way to become famous fast is to throw a brick at someone who is famous.
- Walter Winchell
Walter Winchell was born in April of 1897 in New York, New York, and during the course of his life he permanently changed what it meant to be famous. As a columnist for The New York Mirror Winchell wrote about Broadway actors and other celebrities. He breached journalistic taboo by exposing their personal lives, essentially inventing the gossip column.
Hollywood is where they shoot too many pictures and not enough actors.
- Walter Winchell
It wasn't long before Winchell turned his attentions to Hollywood. A single mention in his column could make or ruin a career. His popularity and influence grew exponentially, for more than thirty years he maintained correspondence with the director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover. At the height of his popularity his syndicated column appeared in more than 2000 daily newspapers and millions of listeners across the nation tuned in to his weekly radio program.
Nothing recedes like success.
- Walter Winchell
Little did he know that by the time of his death the same quote would aptly describe his own fate. Winchell alienated many of his fans by publicly supporting Senator Joe McCarthy's 'Red Scare'. Also the advent of television led to the closing of hundreds of newspapers resulting in the loss of many of his readers. But Jack Paar is widely credited with the killing blow using the rising popularity of television over the diminished influence of radio and print media. As host of The Tonight Show Paar, bitter over Winchell's refusal to retract a false statement about Paar's marriage made years earlier, publicly attacked Winchell and pointedly publicised negative reports about the journalist. If Winchell had a sliver of popularity left it was quickly dashed when his hometown newspaper The New York Mirror folded a few years later. He was reduced to handing out copies of his daily column at a New York club.
Walter Winchell died disgraced and forgotten in February of 1972 in Los Angeles, California. His mentally ill daughter was the only mourner at his funeral.
Joe DiMaggio was one of the greatest and most popular baseball players ever. During his time with the New York Yankees, from 1936 to 1951, DiMaggio was one of the most famous people in the world. After he retired, he married Marilyn Monroe in 1954, ensuring his presence as an idol for many years.