An Aging Louis Armstrong Sings “What a Wonderful World” in 1967, During the Vietnam War & The Civil Rights Struggle

It’s not uncom­mon to have a knee jerk response to Bob Thiele and George David Weiss’ now-ubiq­ui­tous “What a Won­der­ful World.”

The qual­i­ty of your reac­tion is like­ly deter­mined by your world­view.

A misty-eyed bride-to-be brows­ing tunes for her upcom­ing reception’s father-daugh­ter dance will not be com­ing at things from the same angle as the direc­tors of Bowl­ing for Columbine, Good Morn­ing, Viet­nam, and—unexpectedly—Mada­gas­car.

The first ver­sion, sung by an aging Louis Arm­strong, remains defin­i­tive, though it was dis­missed at first by record execs, who hoped for anoth­er rol­lick­ing chart top­per along in the “Hel­lo, Dol­ly!” mod­el.

As Jack Doyle notes on the Pop His­to­ry Dig, Arm­strong dug the song, and per­formed it often, hop­ing to strike a chord of hope and opti­mism dur­ing a peri­od of great civ­il unrest:

Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m say­ing is: see what a won­der­ful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love.  That’s the secret…

The song’s white authors shared his view, and hoped his crossover appeal would pro­mote feel­ings of racial har­mo­ny on all sides of the record-buy­ing pub­lic. It was a hit in the UK, but a slow starter in the US, not real­ly catch­ing on until its appear­ance on Good Morn­ing, Viet­nam’s sound­track (1987).

Half a cen­tu­ry after its release, “What a Won­der­ful World” has entered the pan­theon, as any­one with a tele­vi­sion and ears can attest.

Its sim­ple lyrics involv­ing ros­es, rain­bows, and babies have result­ed in a num­ber of hideous­ly syrupy cov­ers. With so many choic­es, it’s almost impos­si­ble to pick a least-favorite. Their gooey­ness does a dis­ser­vice to the pow­er of the orig­i­nal.

What’s so poignant about the per­for­mance, above, are the moments where the dark­ness cuts through the trea­cle, ever so briefly. Check out Armstrong’s expres­sions at :25, :50, and 1:49, and inter­pret it how you will.

It’s worth not­ing that the night­ly news was monop­o­lized by reports of the war in Viet­nam and the strug­gle for civ­il rights at home. Arm­strong’s health was in decline. The real­i­ties of his own New Orleans child­hood were far more com­plex than the cray­on-bright vision paint­ed by the lyrics.

A mon­tage of bomb­ings and peace­ful demon­stra­tors being stomped under­foot would’ve seemed pre­ma­ture at such an ear­ly stage in the song’s his­to­ry, so Arm­strong smiled through, as he laid the ground­work for lat­er per­form­ers’ lay­ered inter­pre­ta­tions. Some of the ones we find most com­pelling are below:

Nick Cave & the Pogues’ Shane Mac­Gowan unhap­pi­ness has them reel­ing off their stools, even as they shake hands to com­ic effect.

Ministry’s sin­is­ter take opens with a love­ly lone­ly piano that, like the listener’s eardrums, gets plowed under by a mas­sive attack of indus­tri­al noise.

Joey Ramone had already been diag­nosed with the can­cer that cut his life short when he record­ed his ver­sion, that ends on a note of unabashed pop-punk joy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Clean­est Record­ings of 1920s Louis Arm­strong Songs You’ll Ever Hear

The Only Known Footage of Louis Arm­strong in a Record­ing Stu­dio: Watch the Recent­ly-Dis­cov­ered Film (1959)

“What a Won­der­ful World,” Louis Armstrong’s Clas­sic, Per­formed with Tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese Instru­ments

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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