I hear babies cry / I watch them grow / They’ll learn much more / Than I’ll ever know. Those lyrics are from “What a Wonderful World,” written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss and recorded famously by Louis Armstrong in 1967.
1967: the Vietnam War raged, as did protests against it; that year’s “long, hot summer” saw upwards of 150 so-called race riots across the United States. Perhaps those are the reasons why “What a Wonderful World,” which eventually became a standard, was not an instant success, at least in the U.S. (it went to number one in the U.K.). While some may have found the song to be much-needed balm in turbulent times, others no doubt considered a song about a “wonderful world” to be, in that cataclysmic era, as out of touch as a piece of art could get.
I was four years old in 1967. For a little bit, I could have been one of those babies Pops heard crying, and he might have watched me grow as he headed toward the end of his life, which came four years later. “What a Wonderful World,” sung in Armstrong’s gravelly, grandfatherly voice, has the power to bring tears to my eyes, because I hear in the words he sings—They’ll learn much more / Than I’ll ever know—a handing-off of the world to us kids, a way of saying, We did what we could. It’s yours now; you can do better. And yet a lot happened on Pops’ watch. Martin Luther King Jr.’s agitation drove the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Pops himself—decades after giving the nation and the world a new sound—took President Eisenhower to task for his handling of desegregation. He helped leave us a better world.
It was still a very imperfect world, as five subsequent decades—and especially the last four years—would so amply demonstrate. We crying babies of 1967 grew to be middle-aged men and women, and perhaps we came to believe that some hateful things would always be. Along the way I heard babies cry, and I watched them grow; and today they are loudly rejecting what some of us came to accept. They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know—and thank God, they already have.