Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"A Pretty Good Song"

Right now, I’m learning a song on the piano called “What A Wonderful World” (1967, written by Bob Thiele as “George Douglas”, whatever that means, and George David Weiss), popularized by the miraculous Louis Armstrong (performance “to come.”)

The sentiments of this song match almost identically the intention behind “I Believe” (1953, written by Ervin Drake, Irwin Graham, Jimmy Shirl and Al Stillman), that intention being the argument –with numerous examples – that the world around us is awe-strikingly amazing. 

“I Believe” uses the amazingness of the world around us as a faith-based argument for the existence of God.  “What A Wonderful World” is “I Believe” for agnostics. 

The world around us is amazing.  But they leave it at that.    

I like “What A Wonderful World.”  That’s why I brought it to my piano teacher.  I wanted to learn how to play it, and, more importantly for my purposes, to also sing along.

That’s why I take piano lessons – so I can accompany myself when I sing.  (You will not be enjoying my performances on YouTube anytime soon.  If you want to hear me, you’ll have to sneak into our backyard, and listen through the window.) 

(So far, my only audience has been our housekeeper Connie, and our gardeners.  I try not to take this personally, but when I play, Connie immediately starts vacuuming.  And the gardeners seem to have found a way to make their lawnmowers sound louder.)   

I think – probably too much – about excellence, or, more accurately, my concern over my inability to achieve it.  This concern, more than anything, has constricted my creative output beyond the sitcom and blog-writing arenas, my self-sabotaging thinking going, “If I cannot do it excellently, why bother?”

Here as a counter-argument – and I hope I’m listening – is “What A Wonderful World”, a pretty good song, worthy enough for me to want to learn (and less religion-insinuating than “I Believe”, which, excluding its evangelical push, is itself a pretty decent song.)

What makes “What A Wonderful World” a pretty good song?  Let’s start with an hummable melody, a quietly catchy little tune that comes up and asks you if you want to dance, and since it’s a slow dance, you say yes, and it effortlessly carries you away.

And then there’s the sentiment.  Our human record has been conspicuously spotty, but on a natural level, I mean, right now, I’m looking at the ocean.  What can I tell you – it’s a wonderful world.  (And that’s a bonus; the ocean isn’t even in the song.)

But most importantly – to a writer’s ear – there’s the words.

I see trees of green
Red roses too
I see ‘em bloom,
For me and for you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world…

There it is – marking its territory.  Identifiable, evocative, simple, maybe too simple with the “for me and for you” business.  A family member, when in Grade School, once wrote a poem for their school’s litter-collecting campaign that went, “Cleanup is the thing to do; it’s good for me, it’s good for you.”  So it’s, like, special if you’re ten.  But it’s hardly in Cole Porter “Good authors too who once knew better words now only use four-letter word writing prose anything goes” territory.  Still, it gets by, matching the unaffectedness of the sentiment and the unpretentiousness of the tune.

Moving on…

I see skies of blue
Clouds of white
Bright, blessed days
Dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, etc

Okay.  The examples, again, are simple.  But check out the adjectives.  “Bright”, describing a day is upbeat, though hardly groundbreaking.  “Blessed”, without being pushy, is refreshingly unexpected in a secular version of “I Believe.” 

And then there’s the blockbuster.  As a descriptive, the word “sacred” caught me totally off guard.  And it gave me a little shiver.  I don’t know where it came from, but it offered up an original and penetrating perspective on night.

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.”

A glancing allusion – still risky in 1967 – to race relations:  Our variating colors make us pretty as a rainbow.  This inducement towards Brotherhood is followed by what I find to be a questionable assertion that the hands-shaking friends saying “How do you do?” are really saying, “I love you.”  More likely, they’re just saying “How do you do?”  And maybe then, only to be polite, possibly preferring, had they the option, not to say anything at all.

I hear babies cry
I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more
Than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, etc…

Okay.  The “babies” thing verges on cliché.  (“Crying babies” also appear in “I Believe” – “Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky, then I know why I believe.”)  But then, “What A Wonderful World” hits you with this blind-siding observation:

“They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know…”

What the heck is that!  That one is totally out of left field!  I’m not even sure it’s part of the “wonderful world” panorama. 

Why are they telling me of that in this song?  I’m having a good time.  And then they totally discombobulate me with a reminder that is “this close” to,

They’ll be alive
When I’m in the ground.

I don’t know about you, but, to me, this is a highly disturbing thought, one that, I am certain I have never before heard mentioned in a song.  And yet, disturbing as it is…

It stuck with me.   Reverberating in my brain to this very moment.  How many song lyrics can you say do that?

Summing up:  A catchy tune, a felicitous choice of words, and a mind-blowing observation.   And the message, from a creative standpoint, is this:

A work may not be excellent all the way through – few, if any of them, are – and it doesn’t need to be.  If it has its moments, memorable fragments that make you sit up and take notice, then what you’ve got there, metaphorically speaking – and it’s entirely achievable –

Is a pretty darn good song.

And now, for you listening enjoyment, relax, close your eyes, and just peacefully take it in.


cjdahl60 said...

I have an old video of my now adult daughter from when she was in second grade. Her class sang this song for a Mother's Day presentation for all of the mothers.

When the kids get to the "I love you" line, all the kids yell out "I" pointing to their hearts, "love" hugging themselves, "you" pointing to their Moms.

I tear up every time I hear this song.

Manti Ectiof said...

Love Louis' unique voice and phrasing - he does this song very well. Also love "I Believe." There's a number of versions available on YouTube (I'm fond of The Lettermen's rendition, Acapella). You can record a version for your loyal followers, right? Right!

john brown said...

Thanks for that. Isn't it interesting how well his performances stand the test of time.

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