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The Meaning of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”

By the time Louis Armstrong released the famous song, “What A Wonderful World”, in September 1967, he had already made a name for himself as one of the most influential figures in the early days of jazz music.

A beautiful ode to love and life itself, “What A Wonderful World” is a very powerful piece of music that has left its mark on many listeners over the years.

With an age-weathered voice, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong sings about the wonders of the world in a way that sounds so genuine and pure, you can feel the warmth of love deep within your soul.

The song was released at the height of the Vietnam War, during a time when global tensions were high and many people held a bleak outlook on the future.

Within this context, it brings a sense of hope and unity that there are still things worth enjoying, despite the troubles of the world. The lyrics suggest that you can simply look outside and see that there is beauty to behold, and let everything else just float away.

Origins of “What A Wonderful World”

Written by record producer Bob Thiele (under the pen name “George Douglas”and ) and songwriter George David Weiss, “What A Wonderful World” was a number one hit in the UK upon release, but saw much less initial success in the United States.

This was because ABC Records president Larry Newton disliked the song and refused to promote it. As a result the single sold less than 1000 copies in the States, despite being number one overseas.

The story goes that Armstrong was at Bill Porter’s United Recording in Las Vegas, tracking “What A Wonderful World”, during what sounds like a wild recording session. It started around 2am, after one of Armstrong’s midnight shows at the Tropicana Hotel.

Armstrong had recently signed with ABC Records at the time, and Larry Newton was in town to meet with him. He decided to pop in for a visit to the recording studio that night, hoping to hear what Armstrong was working on and take some photos.

Newton, apparently, had wanted Armstrong to record another “Hello, Dolly!”, the 1964 swing dance song he released on Kapp Records. When he heard the slow, calculated tempo of “What A Wonderful World”, he essentially flipped out and tried to stop the recording session.

They kicked Newton out of the studio, and continued to record what has become one of the most famous songs of all time. The session was further interrupted later that night by train whistles, and by the time they wrapped up it was well after 6am.

Newton, embarrassed and pissed off, held a grudge about “What A Wonderful World” and gave it third-rate treatment on the label, thus thwarting its initial success right out the gate.

Cultural Impact of “What A Wonderful World”

Despite the selfish motives of Larry Newton, “What A Wonderful World” could not be held down. Over time, the track reached the right American ears and earned its well-deserved cultural significance.

Today it is considered somewhat of a standard, as it has been played by countless different musicians and released in many different forms over the years. Here we’re going to dive into the song’s use in pop culture over time. Later on, we’ll check out some of the most notable covers.

In 1978, an episode of The Muppets Show aired that featured Rowlf the Dog singing the song to a puppy.

Later in 1978, “What A Wonderful World” was featured in the closing theme of BBC Radio’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In 1981, the song was again used in the final moments of the TV adaptation of the show.

For those interested, we’ve dug up that full episode. The song plays in the final scene, beginning around 33:45.

Perhaps the biggest catalyst for the enduring success of “What A Wonderful World”, however, came in 1987, when the song ended up on the soundtrack for the popular film, Good Morning, Vietnam.

Many people heard the song in the movie and liked it, and in 1988 the record company took advantage of the resurgence in popularity and gave it a re-issue. This time, with the proper marketing.

The re-issue peaked at number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100, and went to number one in Australia.

As for the scene in question, it really is quite fantastic. It features Robin Williams as an Army Radio DJ, and he plays the song for the soldiers in the morning.

Then, in 1989, the popular television show Family Matters made its debut on ABC, with none other than “What A Wonderful World” in the title sequence.

This lasted for only five episodes, however, before the song was replaced with “As Days Go By”, an original written for the series.

The 1995 drama film 12 Monkeys used “What A Wonderful World” during a particularly touching scene, featuring excellent acting from Bruce Willis. It was again played during the credit roll.

The 1998 film adaptation of Madeline also used “What A Wonderful World” in the credit sequence.

In 2005, the popular animated film Madagascar used “What A Wonderful World” during a scene where Alex, the lion, sees his friend Marty the Zebra as food for a brief moment, and feels bad about it.

All of this is to say that Louis Armstrong created a masterpiece with this song, and it has touched many people in many different ways, and continues to do so today.

“What A Wonderful World” Lyrics Meaning

The lyrics present simple beauty, in a simple way. The underlying message is of the inherent good that exists within people, and the world. It brings to mind the possibility of peace on earth, and harmony between races.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. We’re going to break this song down piece-by-piece, starting with the first verse:

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

First verse to “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong starts by looking to nature, admiring the trees and flowers that surround him. He notices their blooms, and how they will bloom for him or for anybody else.

This little natural phenomenon serves to remind him that the world truly is a wonderful place.

Next up, the second verse brings more natural beauty:

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed days, the dark sacred nights
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world

Second verse to “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.

In the second verse Armstrong admires the passing of each day into night. He mentions the bright, blue sky, and the crisp, white clouds.

He finds a blessing in the daytime, and sacred moments of peace in the night, and he again remembers how wonderful the world can be.

The bridge adds a human element to the song, connecting the wonders of nature with the people of the world:

The colors of the rainbow
So pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces
Of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying, “I love you”

Bridge to “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.

First, Armstrong notices a rainbow shimmering across the sky. The colors pop against the blue sky, creating an image of love and happiness. He continues to say that these pretty colors are on the faces of every person on the street.

Aside from the lyric saying that all people are beautiful, the line about the rainbow also brings to mind a few concepts, all of them having to do with unity.

The rainbow could be a reference to race, meaning that people on the streets are all different colors, like the rainbow. They shake hands as friends, asking “how are you?”, but really expressing the love that exists within their hearts.

Many people also connect this lyric with the LGBT movement, which certainly works with the message of the song as one of acceptance. However, the LGBT movement did not become associated with a rainbow flag until 1978, more than a decade after the release of this song. While not the original intent, the rainbow lyric makes for a happy coincidence.

This brings us to the third and final verse, which leaves us with some parting wisdom:

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more
Than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself
What a wonderful world

Third verse to “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.

These lyrics look to the future, as Armstrong hears the crying babies and knows that they will soon grow into adults. He recognizes that the younger generation will always be more open-minded and knowledgeable than the one who came before them.

This has been put on display in society since the release of the song, and was already on full display in 1967, during the time of the song’s release. We had the rise of the hippie movement, with many younger folks abandoning the rigid structure imposed upon them by their elders within society, in hopes of creating a better and more inclusive world.

It can be argued that the youth of today is doing the same, with their inclination towards acceptance and understanding of people from all different backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life.

In this we can find the meaning of this powerful song, sung with wisdom and understanding of the power of love and the interconnectedness between people on a global scale.

“What A Wonderful World” finally got an official music video in 2020, and you can watch that below.

“What A Wonderful World” Covers

As we mentioned earlier, “What A Wonderful World” has been covered by so many artists that it could be considered a standard at this point. Below we’ve gathered some of the most popular and notable covers of the classic song.

Let us know in the comments if we missed any of your favorites!

Willie Nelson – “What A Wonderful World” (1988)

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – “Over The Rainbow” & “What A Wonderful World” Medley (1993)

Hawaiian songwriter Iz did record a standalone version of “What A Wonderful World”, but we chose to include this medley with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” instead, because it’s a song that everyone should know.

Jerry Garcia Band – “What A Wonderful World” (Live 11/16/91)

If you’ve been around this site for very long, you know that this article wouldn’t be complete without hearing from Jerry.

Ghostface Killah & Raekwon – “The Forest”

While not technically a cover, Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon have an interesting take on “What A Wonderful World”.

Joey Ramone – “What A Wonderful World” (2002)

Eva Cassidy – “What A Wonderful World” (2004, posthumous)

Rod Stewart & Stevie Wonder – “What A Wonderful World” (2004)

Katie Melua & Eva Cassidy – “What A Wonderful World” (2007)

This is an exceptional version of the song with an interesting story behind it. British singer-songwriter Katie Melua recorded a duet over the Eva Cassidy version of “What A Wonderful World”, more than ten years after Cassidy’s death in 1996.

Jon Batiste – “What A Wonderful World” (2019)

Sarah Kroger – “What A Wonderful World” (2022)