Satchmo offers response to London bombings

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 13, 2005

Laurie Hiscock couldn't have timed it better if he'd tried.

Barely hours after last week's terrorist bombings in London, my Cochrane coffee companion enthralled me with nearly two dozen recordings of this column's unofficial theme song, "What a Wonderful World."

It wasn't the first time such irony has accompanied performances of the piece made famous by Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. But I'll return to that in a moment.

Laurie, 69 and semi-retired, has had a lifetime interest in music, playing cornet in a Salvation Army band as a youth in Toronto, and later conducting his own bands.

He also collects records – lots of records. Before moving to the Bow Valley four years ago, he had amassed over 30,000 vinyls, mostly jazz. Having downsized for the move, he still has a modest 1,500 in his collection, in addition to CDs and tapes.

This white-haired gentleman, known to many around town as a genial Sears catalogue agent, has become for me a marvelous mentor of musical memories.

Aware of my obsession with Satchmo's signature piece, Laurie treated me the other day to a personalized pop concert of interpretations featuring such artists as Russ Taft, Joe Williams, Roger Whittaker, Anne Murray, Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, Teresa Brewer, Joe Pesci, Sarah Brightman, Lawrence Welk, Vanessa Williams, Placido Domingo, Josˇ Carreras, and of course, Satchmo himself.

I was especially moved by a duet by kd lang and Tony Bennett, to which Tony adds: "Don't you think Satchmo was right?"

And yes, I do think Satchmo was right, I told Laurie. But it's been my encounter with the irony of the song in the Robin Williams motion picture Good morning, Vietnam that has helped me realize just how right.

Satchmo first recorded "What a Wonderful World" in 1967, but it wasn't till its use 20 years later in the Vietnam War film that it really took off in North America.

Robin Williams' character, the zany morning host of a Saigon-based U.S. military radio station, had just returned from the front, where he'd witnessed the war firsthand in all its absurdity. We join him as witnesses as he plays Satchmo's song on air, the beauty of its imagery standing in agonizing contrast to a cinematic montage of horror and ugliness.

To "trees of green, red roses, too," troops depart for the front in trucks and choppers. To "skies of blue and clouds of white," a mother and child watch, stunned, as their village is napalmed. "Colors of the rainbow"? An impromptu execution by bullet-to-the-head.

Then comes the inspiring line, "We see friends shaking hands saying 'How do you do?' They're really saying, 'I love you.'" On the screen? A placard-waving throng of civilians marching down a Saigon street, confronted by dozens of armed, uniformed men who beat an unarmed woman and cameraman to the ground, bleeding and pleading.

Satchmo captured that irony in his own words long before the film was made – words we today can echo with reference to the London bombings.

His words are set against the backdrop of May 1970. The war in Vietnam had spilled over into Cambodia with enormous loss of life. Students at Ohio's Kent State University had rallied in protest. On May 4 National Guardsmen had fired into the student protestors, killing four and wounding nine others.

Three weeks later in New York, Satchmo began his performance of the song as follows – and this is why Laurie couldn't have timed his musical treat for me any better:

"Some of you young folks have been saying to me, 'Hey, Pop, what do you mean, "What a wonderful world"? How about all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? They ain't so wonderful, either.'

"Well, how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain't the world that's so bad, but what we are 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. Yeah! If lots more of us loved each other, we'd solve lots more problems. That's why old Pops keeps saying, 'What a wonderful world'.'"

And as Tony Bennett said, "Don't you think Satchmo was right?"

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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