The Social Lives of “What A Wonderful World”

In 1970 Louis Armstrong made an appearance on The David Frost Show. During his visit, he sang an intimate version of “What A Wonderful World,” a song originally released by ABC Records as a single three years prior. If you ever wondered what Armstrong would have looked and sounded like as a solo cabaret vocalist, then watch the recording of his Frost Show performance, which is featured below. For the performance duration, Armstrong sits in a relaxed position in a mustard-colored chair next to Frost and the show’s guests. He sings into a bendable armchair microphone while a spotlight illuminates his expressive face. In other televised performances of the song, a variety of instruments accompany Armstrong, yet only a piano accompanies him on this show. The lack of multiple instruments causes Armstrong’s gravelly voice and shaky vibrato to stand out. Armstrong makes this version sound like a voiced meditation instead of a voiced declaration.

Armstrong on The David Frost Show (performance starts around 0:30)

Songwriters Bob Thiele and George David Weiss composed “What A Wonderful World” when there were protests in the United States about the Vietnam War, racial injustice, women’s rights, and environmental destruction. When asked why they wrote the song specifically for Armstrong, they commented: “We wanted this immortal musician and performer to say, as only he could, the world really is great: full of the love and sharing people make possible for themselves and each other every day….”[1] Although Armstrong did not like the song at first, he came to realize that some of the lyrics reminded him of his home and neighborhood in Corona, Queens, New York. On one of his reel-to-reel tapes, he talked about why the song is meaningful to him. Below are his words in written form. 

Lucille and I, ever since we’re married, we’ve been right there in that block. And everybody keeps their little homes up like we do and it’s just like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block. And they’re all with their children, grandchildren, they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille. That’s why I can say, I “hear babies cry/I watch them grow/they’ll learn much more/than I’ll never know.” And I can look at all them kid’s faces. And I got pictures of them when they was five, six, and seven years old. So when they hand me this “Wonderful World,” I didn’t look no further, that was it. And the music with it. So you can see, from the expression, them people dug it. It is a wonderful world.[2]

From 1967-1971 Armstrong performed “What A Wonderful World” numerous times on television and in live shows despite failing health. When he passed away in 1971, the song continued “to live” in many ways. Several scholars have discussed and theorized what they refer to as “the social lives of things” or the “cultural biography of things.” Most often, they are interested in the “economic biography” or the “commodity phase” of a “thing.” There is no denying that Armstrong’s 1967 single of “What A Wonderful World” and his 1968 album of the same name are commodities. Nevertheless, in what follows, I do not offer an “economic biography” of “What A Wonderful World.” Rather, I explore how the song lives today thanks to the creations of a quilter and artist from the United States. Once the song lives in a new form, it becomes part of different cultural, political, and social worlds.

On February 25, 2021 I had the opportunity to speak with Mary Booher, a longtime resident of Bar Harbor, Maine, over Zoom. Through my father, I had learned that Mary was a Quaker quiltmaker and in 2020 created a quilted hanging inspired by one of Armstrong’s recorded versions of “What A Wonderful World.” After my conversation with Mary, I began thinking about the song in relation to her story and life experiences and how her material creation, the quilt, allowed the song to acquire a host of new meanings.

Mary grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She learned to sew at a young age, and her early creations included doll clothes. Later on, she taught herself how to quilt by following instructions in a pattern book. Mary has never made quilts for profit. For her, quilting is a meaningful activity that gives her self-satisfaction. Most of her quilts go to her family members and friends, and it is their appreciation that motivates her to continue making more quilts.

Music has also played an important role in Mary’s life. Her mother was a musician who played various instruments and performed Dixieland music. Mary learned to play piano from her mother, and later, studied organ with her choir director. Even though she did not major in music in college, she continued to find ways to strengthen her connection to music by serving as a church organist for nine years and then as an accompanist for a middle school chorus for twenty years.

During one of Mary’s musical encounters with kids, she discovered a children’s book entitled What A Wonderful World. She had accompanied a group of preschoolers to meet Ashley Bryan, an African American artist who lives on Little Cranberry Island in Maine. Bryan is known for his illustrations, especially those featured in his books for children, and he is the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. Over the course of his career, he has been committed to creating books with African American characters. In 1995 he illustrated What A Wonderful World, a children’s book featuring the lyrics of the song made famous by Armstrong. For Mary, it is the beautiful lyrics coupled with the vivid illustrations that make the book special.[3]

In the fall of 2020, Mary noticed a call for artwork created in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. This call made her think about the lyrics of “What A Wonderful World” and their inclusion in Bryan’s book. Subsequently, she created a quilt that artistically represented some of her reflections on race/ethnicity, color, and inclusion in the United States. When recalling her decision to create the quilt, Mary stated: “I don’t consider myself an activist or what I consider an activist-to-be with writing, calling, and persuading and such, but the issues affect me, and so this [creating a quilt] was a way for me to express myself.”[4]

The song “What A Wonderful World” lives in the present day in ways Armstrong never imagined, such as in the form of a quilt and a children’s book. In 2018, Armstrong’s 1968 album What A Wonderful World “turned 50.” Over the course of the next fifty years, how will the song live and inspire others?   

[1] Ricky Riccardi, What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, New York: Vintage Books, 258-259.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mary Booher, conversation with Maglyn Bertrand, Zoom, February 25, 2021.  

[4] Ibid.

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