You Are Here

Louis Armstrong wrote, “It’s a Wonderful World.” He was an African American who grew up in New Orleans and traveled as a musician during some of the most violent moments of the Civil Rights movement. He literally sang in hotels that would not allow him to stay in one of their rooms or eat in their restaurant because of his skin color.

So the question is, how could Armstrong see the world as a great banquet after the hatred and oppression he experienced?

Listen to this mashup of Armstrong’s song with “Over the Rainbow,” sung by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Notice how the songs contradict one another. “Over the Rainbow” is about how bad it is here and how great it is over there, somewhere. And since Dorothy lived in Kansas, I perfectly understand. “What a Wonderful World” is about…well, how wonderful THIS world is. What do you think Iz is trying to say with this?

Sarah Vowell comments on this arrangement in her book, Unfamiliar Fishes, fitting it in the Hawaiian context—how Congregationalist missionaries arrive at paradise with the message that this world is bad and that they should instead look forward to the next one. And how Hawaiians have struggled with that take on the world, given where they live. Here’s her own words:

“Over the Rainbow” is as sweet and soft as trade winds rustling through palms. It is the perfect song for Hawaiian vacations because the tranquility of its sound captures the feeling tourists flock there to find. Even though it’s a song that is actually about the human inability to be happy where one is, the suspicion that joy is always somewhere else. It is not unlike the hymns the New England missionaries brought to Hawaii, advertisements for heaven, that other elusive elsewhere where troubles melt like lemondrops. The trick of Iz’s tender arrangement of the song is how convincing a case he makes that finally, and for once, You Are Here.” P. 232.

What ugliness in the world is keeping you from seeing paradise?