Louis Armstrong died 17 years before Good Morning Vietnam came to your local theater. I wonder what he’d say hearing himself sing “What a Wonderful World” to tune of the U. S. military presence in Vietnam in 1965. Robin Williams, d. j. Adrian Cronauer, spins the song as the bucolic daybreak opening gives way to strafing, fires, then slides back to the calm return of planes and soldiers to camp at end of day. Although the film tries hard to be an anti-war protest, long after the fact of the war itself, this is the only scene that really grabs. Robin Williams is Robin Williams, that’s good, but hardly enough. The contrived plot and wooden characters are, well, wooden. “What a Wonderful World” is the only transgression in the film that works.
Armstrong separated his entertaining, his art from his politics. He came up when minstrelsy was still around. He went along with it sometimes. In the 1950s and, especially, 1960s, younger African-Americans saw Armstrong as too grounded in subservient, racist shtick to represent new attitudes born in the civil rights movement. The story of Armstrong’s response to Little Rock is frequently mentioned in biographies of him, but perhaps it’s new to you.
On September 19, 1957 a reporter buttonholed Armstrong in Grand Forks, North Dakota, as he was about to go on stage and asked him to respond to Little Rock and Governor Faubus’s actions. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” And went on to say Eisenhower was “two-faced” with “no guts,” allowing “uneducated plowboy” Faubus to run the country. Armstrong stated he would cancel his upcoming trip to Russia on behalf of the State Department. The reporter handed him his notes and Armstrong signed off with “solid.”
The next day his road manager, Pierre Tallerie, told reporters that his boss was “sorry he spouted off.” Louis fired him and said, “He’s speaking for himself. My people—the Negroes—are not looking for anything—we just want a square shake. But when I see on television and read about a crowd in Arkansas spitting on a little colored girl—I think I have a right to get sore…. do you dig me when I still say I have a right to blow my top over injustice?” The black community did not support him. Adam Clayton Powell and Sammy Davis, Jr. spoke out against Armstrong’s stand. Later as Lucille Armstrong recalled, “ they got on the bandwagon when it was safe.”
Art is supposed to transgress. This is its vaunted goal. Louis Armstrong made the most of subversive material; his shenanigans in a fistful of his films and dozens of his songs make this clear. But he did not use his artistry as a platform for his politics. He was strong-minded at every juncture and made no secret of his views, his allegiance to his race, and his aberrance to the government’s actions. What would Louis Armstrong say to singing “What a Wonderful World” to the tune of the Vietnam War?