On Sept. 1, 1967, ABC Records released a recording of Louis Armstrong singing What a Wonderful World. That was the year of the Torrey Canyon oil spill off the coast of Britain; Charles Manson was released from prison in Los Angeles; military coups in Sierra Leone, and Greece; riots in Hong Kong kill and injure more than 800; guerrilla war begins in India; civil war in Biafra begins;
“June Movement” terrorist group forms in West Germany; the “Six-Day War” between Israel and Arab states; 159 “race riots” explode across American cities; China tests its first hydrogen bomb; 70,000 protesters march on Washington calling to end Vietnam War; President Lyndon Johnson concludes that the American people should be given “more optimistic reports on the progress of the war” (i.e., lying).
What a Wonderful World stayed on top of the UK pop charts for most of 1968, during which year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Also: deadly Army nerve gas leaked in Utah; American soldiers killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai Massacre; one million students and protesters riot in Paris; 750,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 6,500 tanks with 800 aircraft invade Czechoslovakia to end the “Prague Spring” liberalizations;
the Democratic National Convention in Chicago breaks out in chaos as police riot against protesters; Vietnam War expands into Laos and Cambodia; Chinese Cultural Revolution sends urban educated to the countryside as farmers.
That, of course, is a very narrowed down list of the horrors of those two years. And Louis Armstrong sang, “I see trees of green, red roses too/ I see them bloom, for me and you/ And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” So, it is hardly surprising that a number of critics responded badly to the tune as horribly sentimental and out of touch.
But that is only if you pay attention to the words and not the music. Too often, we hear the lyrics of a song and assume that is what the song is about. Yet, sometimes, the music and words create a tension, and Armstrong’s version of What a Wonderful World is sung with a powerful undercurrent of sadness. It’s there in the constant shifting from major to minor harmonies, and most of all, it’s there in his worn, gravelly voice; it is a song that is having it both ways.
Neil McCormick, chief rock music critic at The Telegraph in London, wrote in 2012, “What makes it so powerful is Armstrong’s vocal, which is not smug or avuncular, his voice is so old and cracked that it contains a sense of loss within it, the bittersweet tinge of a man looking back, who has already lived a long life and is acutely aware of how precious it is. So, curiously, it seems to me there is an almost invisible shadow of melancholia in the song.”
Armstrong was occasionally attacked during the Cold War years for acting as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. and called an Uncle Tom. And it can be hard to endure all those variety TV shows on which he sang yet one more version of Hello, Dolly. But one should never forget that he also recorded a powerful version of (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue. “Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead/ Feel like old Ned, wished I was dead/ What did I do to be so black and blue?”
Armstrong turned it from its original comic purpose in a 1929 Broadway musical, Hot Chocolate, into a protest song. In 1965, on a tour of Europe, he reacted to police brutality against marchers in Selma, Ala., he told audiences in Denmark he became “physically ill” watching the beatings on television, and added, “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.” Later, singing in East Germany, he sang the song again, changing the lyrics to emphasize its civil rights message: “I’m right inside, but that don’t help my case/ ’cause I can’t hide what is on my face./ My only sin is in my skin/ What did I do to be so black and blue?”
“Some of you young folks been saying to me: ‘Hey, Pops — what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful?’ ” For everybody knows or else should know that if nothing drastic is done, waves of anger and fear will again circulate over a low dishonest decade, and the unmentionable odor of death will darken the lands of the earth.
And yet. And yet, I always remember the boys, underfed and cold in winter, with grinning smiles on their faces as they play soccer in the mud of the refugee camp. And I remember the mother smiling as she pulls back the cloth and shows her babies beaming face. Earth’s the right place for love, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
And there are very few, even knowing that life is suffering, who would choose to leave it, and indeed, hold on to the very end, hoping always for one more breath. Life makes no sense and yet, it is beautiful. I don’t mean my life or your life, but life as it covers a planet in green and in fertile waters and even while evil despots send armies to smash home and body, the daffodils still open in spring. It makes no sense, but it is still beautiful.
I look out my front door — always my measuring stick for a world taken for what it is — and I see the winter trees, bare wooden bones, and I see the birds dotting the crossing branches and I hear them, especially in the morning, and I cannot see and hear that as anything but intensely beautiful. And in a month or two, the twigs will bud and new leaves will fill out the armature. The trees will be green again, and red roses, too.
You have to take it all, the grieving, the pain, the loss, the joy, the love, the radiance, and take it as a bundle. Yes, there is evil, and evil people. There always have been and always will be. There will also be contention between those who believe it is the others who are evil, as they perpetrate it themselves. It is enough to make grown men cry.
In the Mahabharata, the archer Arjuna is standing in his chariot waiting to signal the beginning of a terrible war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. And he foresees the horror, violence and death and he hesitates. The misery he sees makes him break down, drop his bow and decide to leave the battlefield. But then, his chariot driver, who is the disguised god Krishna explains to him why he must fight, and what is the nature of the world. There is much in the discussion that is explication of Hindu doctrine and requires much gloss to understand. But, in the middle of the catechism, Arjuna asks to see Krishna in his divine form, and Krishna grants him the vision.
What he sees is both terrible and frightening beyond telling, but also radiant and intensely beautiful. “If a thousand suns were to blaze forth together in the sky, they would not match the splendor of that great form,” it says. “There Arjuna could see the totality of the entire universe in one place.”
“Be neither afraid nor bewildered on seeing this terrible form of Mine,” says Krishna. “Be free from fear and with a cheerful heart.”
The universe is something well beyond the needs and understanding of humans. It is cold and heartless, but it is also unimaginably beautiful. You could say, both at once, but more to the point, not both, but rather, the same thing. It is. אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה Eyeh asher eyeh.
And it is this totality and its overwhelming terror and radiance that shine through those refugee boys playing soccer, that community digging through the rubble of a bombed building to find the survivor desperately breathing life, to discover in the murderer the glowing passion that led to the crime.
The bright blessed day and the dark sacred night.