Smashed Hits: How political is What A Wonderful World?

 

David Attenborough presents some of the BBC's stunning natural history highlights.

David Attenborough has performed a version of What A Wonderful World to soundtrack the BBC's nature coverage. Why did it take so long for this song to become a standard, and does it have a political message?

It's performed by a trumpeter whose lungs were too weak to play on the song and was never a hit in its homeland, reaching number 116 in the charts.

It has since become a standard, performed by the Celine Dions, Sarah Brightmans and Lesley Garretts of the world, and its success may be down to the same effects of age that prevented Louis Armstrong from playing a note.

Its creators, producer Bob Thiele and songwriter George David Weiss, hoped that Armstrong's grandfatherly image would help convey the song's message - and the message was political.

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The single was released in 1968, a year in which America saw curfews as race riots spread from Newark and Detroit to over 100 cities. There were fears of a second civil war and the violence included attacks on Jewish shops.

Peter Ling, professor of American Studies at Nottingham, told the BBC that the Jewish-American Thiele and Weiss saw Armstrong as "the perfect ambassador to restore race relations between white people like them and the African-American community."

Unlike that of many black artists, Armstrong's appeal extended irrespective of race, and the hope was that a 66-year-old on the airwaves extolling the virtues of goodwill would wield some heft - the world is wonderful, and so are we all.

Not everyone was convinced, which may account for the single's initial commercial failure. Since the 1950s, Armstrong had been dealing with accusations of being an "Uncle Tom" - of subserviently providing entertainment for white America. Armstrong himself, naturally, disagreed.

Louis Armstrong Armstrong's appeal transcended race

"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?'" Armstrong said as he introduced a live performance of the song - words which are best read with his gravelly delivery in mind.

"But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? 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."

Like other songs with universal themes - say, REM's Everybody Hurts - the imprecision of the lyric is seen by the many it reaches as a strength and by others as a weakness - a vagueness approaching greeting-card levels.

It's also irrepressibly public-spirited, people shaking hands on the street are, apparently, "saying I love you" - illustrated in the Attenborough video, oddly, by two hippopotamuses fighting each other in the Okavango river.

Notable versions

Shane MacGowan & Nick Cave (1992, louche duet)

Joey Ramone (2002, US punk)

Kenny G (2004, saxophone added to Armstrong original)

Katie Melua (2007, posthumous duet with Eva Cassidy)

Coldplay (2011, intro to Fix You at Glastonbury)

And this is not the first time What A Wonderful World's generosity of spirit has been juxtaposed with less-than-cheerful imagery.

The song became better known in America after its ironic use to soundtrack the carnage of war in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam. In the UK, it was played at the end of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy as Ford and Arthur anticipate the destruction of the Earth by the Vogons, and puppet show Spitting Image rewrote it with a pollution theme as We've Ruined The World: "I see forests cut down, great ozone holes..."

Suffering subversion is an occupational hazard for earnest, buoyant music, but What A Wonderful World is still used in sincere contexts, for example in tribute to the people of Armstrong's hometown New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans The song became a tribute to the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

It also crops up on soundtracks in non-ironic contexts, though these days you're more likely to hear it as part of a medley with Over The Rainbow, performed by Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole in a bare-bones ukulele format that lends an aura of authenticity.

To some, you could add "spirituality" to "authenticity". Like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Stand By Me, it's in a genre you might call "secular sacred" - as at home in choral versions on Songs of Praise as it is in the record collections of atheists.

Its latest rendition shares an authoritative feel, the 85-year-old Attenborough giving the same sense of having seen it all in the line "they'll learn much more than I'll ever know" to Armstrong's original, although the prodigious smoker of marijuana and the former controller of BBC Two perhaps have little else in common.

A key difference between their recordings comes at the end: Armstrong's gargled "Oh yeah" is replaced by Attenborough's more reserved "Quite simply wonderful".

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 83.

    Music can not be political of itself only people put such connotations to the vibrations.

    Likewise with Sir David Attenborough who has shown people of ALL political parties that life on planet Earth is strong yet fragile and will be perilous to ourselves as a species if we do not ensure an equilibrium.

    Tell me what are the politics of death?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 82.

    Yes, it is a wonderfull world. there is only one problem with it. The human habitants that are destroying it out of pure selfish GREED!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 81.

    64 heatoreat
    I'm 45 & listen to Oasis; but I still 'get' Louis Armstrong.

    Don't know what the current crop of 18 year olds listen to but there are more recent bands than Oasis, I think.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 80.

    I like this song - some friends of mine got married to it & listening to the words at the time, it seemed appropriate.

    I've never thought of it as political song, emotive perhaps but I can't see the politics in it. Believe me, I'd see it if it was there!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 79.

    I like Sir David, but he should stick to what he does best.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 78.

    Flora says it's nice that David Attenborough has moved in to all round entertainment by doing things like this and a voice over to Bjork's Biophilia apps project..... But I don't agree with her, I think it is incredibly banal and does no good to anyone. Maybe Flora should write on here herself, I keep telling you what she thinks, but it doesn't quite feel right...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 77.

    "61.david williams"

    I don't know what you are on, but I want some!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 76.

    Indeed. It is a wonderful world.The real problem is there are just too many people living on it.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 75.

    The earliest usage in an ironic fashion dates back not to "Good Morning Vietnam" but to "Dr. Strangelove" in the scene towards the end where a nuclear apocalypse is starting.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 74.

    Anyone familiar with the Ministry version of the song? It's worth hearing. It was also used at the end of the TV version of Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I guess someone has already said all this (but I don't have time to read every post) Great song - nostalgia (in the true sense), inspiration and a call to arms! Having said all that, I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know who wrote it!

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 73.

    poetry, simple easy to feel with. That is as far as it goes. Makes the individual think he cares. ballast for wasted lives i say. phat.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 72.

    It should be released, quickly!, by David Attenborough. It deserves to be Christmas No 1. Something sincere by someone who cares,who is loved by millions; in contrast to the X-Factor dross which is usually hyped into this place.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 71.

    In regard to someones post about a song for the European Union"

    Songs meaning can be changed by the singers voice/performance.

    So a perfect song for todays economic climate is Willie Nelson's version of "Blue Skies Shining on Me" is the most depressing version on the planet - worse when you hear it on an overcast rainy day.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 70.

    I like the song, Attenborough's narration of it was embarrassing. Which was a shame because there was some great wildlife footage there.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 69.

    I like Louis Armstrongs version of the song, as it gives me the impression he is singing about a vision what the world as should be.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 68.

    66

    You're nearly there.

    I was critiquing David Attenboroughs version.

    Louis Armstrong didn't enter into the equation.

    To recap. D.A's version of this song was not pleasant.He, himself, (D.A) has been responsible for some of the best TV of my life.

    Done.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 67.

    This is an impossible thread.
    A huge influence on Jazz music still renowned today, an innovator, a instinctive and magical musician. If you want to compare, you will have a problem because very few muso's today have anywhere near the talent.
    If filmmakers use Louis's work to make a point, fine.
    But please stop deriding a major influence of music in the 20th century.
    If you don't like the song ok.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 66.

    62. Take that ribbon from your hair
    11 MINUTES AGO
    56

    OK i understand your views, but comparing Shatner to Armstrong is like comparing a rock to Paverotti.
    I just say, please don't judge one of the best Jazz, Blues singers / wind instument icons and big band leaders without a little bit of reserch !!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 65.

    When a song is a good as this one it can't be ruined by politics or politicians. It still makes me fill up and has done since it was released. The USA isn't perfect but it has come a long long way, but like too many things it can be held back by clever people who just love to destroy heros and heroic concepts. Sack the academics has replaced "kill all the lawyers". Maybe. Perhaps not, but a start

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 64.

    60. SprocketScientist
    I agree, BUT... your derision of Louis's song is simply ignorance.
    The music and lyrics were not written for Sir David's TV programs.
    If you did a bit of music history, you would find the brilliance and talent among his peers was indisputable.
    If you are 18 and listen to Oasis, you just will not get it !
    The song is 60 ish years old.
    When you study music you can comment .

 

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