This coming week marks the birthday of a man who Bing Crosby called, “the beginning and the end of music in America.” Born in the sweltering heat of a New Orleans’ August, the grandson of former slaves, and suffering abject poverty, that man was Louis Armstrong.
It was starvation that drove young Louis to the streets where he learned to sing, scat, and play trumpet, all to earn a few pennies each day to feed his hunger and stay alive. From those hardened streets he rose by the sheer weight of his talent, charisma, and personality to play for presidents, popes and kings. A unifying force in chaotic, divisive times, he was a master.
Most people, even those who could not recognize Armstrong’s face or his contribution to Americana, can still sing along to his most iconic song. Barely two minutes long, a song which fails to showcase his greatest gifts, and recorded long after his musical heyday, it will last for decades, if not centuries to come.
The lyrics go: “I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom, for me and you … I see skies of blue, and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.’”
Louis recorded and released “What a Wonderful World” in 1967. Certainly, he looked out at the utopia of that year and time period and concluded that, “Yes, it was indeed a wonderful world.” Do you know what was going on in 1967? The southern states were fighting desegregation, and the U.S. Army was fighting in Southeast Asia. The Apollo 1 spacecraft was burning on the Launchpad, and the Cold War was burning in Eastern Europe.
The Israelis were at war with their Arab neighbors, and police departments were at war with African Americans in Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and DC. JFK was already dead, and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. would both be assassinated the following year. Yes, that was such a jolly good time for everyone, wasn’t it?
How could Louis Armstrong sing this song about rainbows and unicorns when the world looked like it was going to hell in a hand basket; when the world looked so un-wonderful (as it still does today)? Armstrong answers that question. He said, “It seems to me it ain't the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it. All I’m saying is: See what a wonderful world it would be, if only we’d give it a chance.”
That conclusion hints of Scripture. God created this wonderful world and called it “good.” That word gets extensive use, not only in English, but in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament. It can mean “attractive” or “pleasing.” It can mean what is “honest” or “right.” But the use of the word in the creation accounts means that everything is exactly as it should be. It is whole, it is wonderfully complete. “Good” is a state of excellence.
So what went wrong? We did. As crowning achievements of his creative project, humanity was to serve as the steward and curator of God’s world. It was — it is — and it will always remain — humanity’s role to be creation’s executor and protector; to maintain the goodness of God’s world. We have largely shirked that responsibility.
Yet, this blue ball hanging in the vast expanse of space that miraculously incubates all that is, must mean something to God, because God wants it to be wonderfully “good.” And he has given us a meaningful, leading role in his artistic masterpiece, so we are compelled, as people of faith, to participate in the stewardship of creation.
We throw ourselves into the fray of this fractured world — healing the sick, making peace among enemies, feeding the hungry, working for justice, protecting and sustaining resources, creating harmony — because we believe “it ain't the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it.” God’s intent and Armstrong’s words are tuned to the same melody: Let’s give the Wonderful World a chance.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.