On December 19th, 1925, in New York City, a letter arrived in Al and Rose Sherman’s mailbox. The envelope contained Al’s first royalty check as a songwriter. “Save Your Sorrow” provided the Shermans $500, and now they could pay the hospital delivery costs for Robert, their first born. Only the day before they had borrowed a dollar from Rose’s mother so they could eat. But by the end of the decade, buoyed by more songs, the Shermans had another son, Richard, and a more comfortable bank account.
Robert and Richard would follow their Tin Pan Alley dad into the family business and write more motion-picture song scores than any other songwriting team in film history. If Dick Van Dyke has instructed you through “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” you know their work: Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Junglebook, Winnie the Pooh, The Parent Trap. They have two Grammys, two Oscars and 23 gold and platinum records. The Sherman brothers’ work has delighted children and families with songs for over sixty years. And they also have the distinction of writing the worst song of all time: “It’s a Small World After All.”
A hundred years before, by the stillness of Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Surely this won’t be the case for the Shermans, but if they had left us with only “It’s a Small World,” most of us would be wishing for the quiet desperation. Thoreau would have agreed to pay his taxes.
Songs have wonderful ways of attaching to places. Many of us associate a favorite song with a certain apartment we used to live in, a car we drove, a school we were expelled from. Some connections are regional. We hear a city when we hear a certain band. The Beastie Boys are Brooklyn, Otis Redding and his Stax labelmates provide the soundtrack for Memphis. Motown’s got Detriot. Even if you weren’t in Central Park to see Simon and Garfunkel reunite, sometimes, when listening to “Homeward Bound,” it’s hard not to imagine your attendance, on a blanket under a tree, in the center of the city.
“It’s a Small World” is attached however, like the plastic boats that run through it, to the most godawful, condescending amusement ride in recorded history. When you climb aboard the boat, you set sail past nearly 300 costumed dolls and animals, singing the same song over and over. Because the song is sung in the round, it never really truly has an ending; it’s a snake eating its own tail. The boats bob through the Seven Seaways that, as the ride explains, “embrace this miniature globe.” The ride claims to dissolve boundaries and connect continents. The repetition of the song in at least five languages, does bring unity: a unity of madness. The ride states that “children under age 7 years must be accompanied by a person age 14 years or older.” This may be for safety reasons but really no child should have to bear this misadventure alone. Children, however, tend to enjoy this sort of repetitive melody and research says songs like these aid in the ability to retain information. Just watch an episode of Barney. Television and radio jingles have the same effect; we hum all the way to the store. They are the niggling little ditties that penetrate our subconscious. Chain gangs, digging ditches and building roads, sing them to dull the pain and keep the pace.
The puppets that greet the ride’s passengers feature animatronics, a technology new in the 1950s. Electric motors, pneumatic and hydraulic cylinders, and cable driven mechanisms instruct the movements of the figures. The unity of the world is in the cogs of an awkward technology whose stilted movements create a moving lifelessness. Mannequins wave in time, their eyelids wink, their mouths gape and close. The English dolls are Cockney, the African puppets play drums, and the ones from the South Seas are mermaids. They sing,
It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears It’s a world of hopes, it’s a world of fear There’s so much we share that it’s time we’re aware It’s a small world after all It’s a small world after all It’s a small world after all It’s a small world after all It’s a small, small world There is just one moon and one golden sun And a smile means friendship to everyone. Though the mountains divide and the oceans are wide It’s a small, small world
While most sing in their own language, they eventually give way to English; their unity quickly becomes assimilation.
Like other failed songs of unity, “It’s a Small World” presumes a sameness about the world. Twenty years later, pop stars, many of questionable talent and fleeting fame, gathered around a few room mikes, to sing “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” a song that intended to bring attention to the famine in Africa. The lyrics curiously muse that the jungles and plains of Africa “won’t have snow” and that the 47% of Muslims that make up the continent won’t know “it’s Christmas time at all.” A year later, led by the writing of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones, “We Are the World” didn’t assure the world of much more. Most notably that change, we were reminded, wouldn’t come until “we stand together as one.” Given its purpose, the song was a success. It raised $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa. Even though the performance was self-aggrandizing and the song didn’t address why the famines were occurring, it still is a little ungenerous to really criticize it. “Masters of War” or “We Shall Overcome” it is not.
But while “We Are the World” was written at the end of Reagan’s first term, as the economy climbed its way out of a recession, “It’s a Small World” was written during the Cuban missile crisis, for the 1964 World’s Fair. As nuclear weapons aimed themselves squarely at Havana, and the world imagined an imminent future of nuclear fallout, the song and its message of closeness must have seemed like quite an understatement.
Even Robert and Richard Sherman, commissioned by Walt Disney to write the song that would benefit Unicef, were at war. Robert haunted by his service in WWII never could see eye to eye with his younger brother, Richard. The two and half years that separated them were long enough to send Robert to Germany. He would be one of the first American soldiers to arrive at Dachau and witness the atrocities there. He was only 17. “I didn’t know anything about anything. But I learned,” Bob said later. Meanwhile, Richard was enrolled in Beverly Hills High School where he played the flute, clarinet, piano, and piccolo. At his 1946 high school graduation, Richard played flute in a duet with classmate Andre Previn on piano.
When the brothers wrote songs, Robert would sit quietly with his notepad, across the room from his brother at the piano. He gripped his pen, often silent for many minutes, and would jot down lyric ideas as they occurred to him. Robert pounded out melodies and chord progressions, blurting out words in his baritone as fast as Richard would suggest them.
This would be the scene when they wrote “It’s a Small World.” Co-writers, or any good collaborators, while bringing different perspectives and experiences to the table, find ways to marry their thoughts together. They bob and weave, compromise and concede, encourage and accommodate. Bob and Dick were able to do this, but I can’t help but think that their inspiration for the “small world” sentiment came from different places. Richard’s life was small. Beverly Hills and Hollywood were closed communities. It was who you know, not who you didn’t know. Parties gave way to other parties and you and your car connected you to anywhere you wanted to go. To Richard, “It’s a Small World” must have seemed familiar, a celebration of the simplicity of the world. But for Robert whose world opened up in terrible ways during the war, the sentiment must have been wistful, longing, an elegy with a deceiving melody. Both agreed that the song was a prayer for peace. But peace from what?
In the 2009 documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, directed by Richard’s son Gregory and his cousin Jeff, AJ Carothers, a playwright, television writer and friend to the Shermans and Walt Disney, described the brothers’ relationship by invoking F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “A sentimental person thinks things will last, a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t.” Robert, the Romantic, knew the world wasn’t small and had long given up on a Disney ending to things.
The fairy tale ending is a sentimental notion. It is lovely to see order restored and to witness loved ones reunited, but living happily ever after prevents a real ending to the story. At the end of Mary Poppins when her work is done, Mary, her umbrella in hand, takes to the air and bids a fond farewell to Bert. Bert tells her not to stay away too long. Although a sentimental viewer can imagine that she returns one day, we never see it happen. A Romantic interpretation of the same ending isn’t bleak by comparison. There is a beautiful humility in that ambiguity, in the acceptance of not knowing what will happen next, in having no expectations. A Romantic can enjoy the time Mary and Bert spent with one another and not worry if they ever see each other again.
And this is why I hate “It’s a Small World” so much: it lies. This world is anything but small. It is a Massively Large World After All would be a truer title. I get what’s it’s getting at. It’s an admirable intention. As human beings we should look to find similarities, to realize that it is indeed a world of laughter and a world of tears and that yes, there’s so much that we share. But I’m more struck by our differences. Because saying it’s a small world has its ramifications. If the world is small then that assumes that we are big, running into one another in the darndest of places. If we are bigger for this small world then we are more important, less humble.
What if we realized we were incredibly small—that we played incredibly small roles in the grand scheme of things? Wouldn’t that force our involvement in it? Wouldn’t that force us to find connections and not assume that they exist? Wouldn’t we celebrate our differences as a way of embracing our diversity? Or if not embracing, at least respecting it? Isn’t that a richer conclusion?
This conclusion has been reached countless times in popular music, in better songs. It’s what I find so valuable about the art form. Most pop songs concede that life is difficult, frustrating, and often lonely, but the good ones work hard to prove why we should persevere anyway. Perhaps you can’t get no satisfaction, but you can get what you need. If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with. It’s this shared commiseration that bonds us so closely to song.
Ned Rorem, an American composer, said that “Music is the sole art which evokes nostalgia for the future.” The word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots: one means “returning home” and the other “pain.” Listening to great songs can certainly make you think about the past but something about listening to the recorded event or the live performance takes you out of the past and into the future. That’s what it feels like to live in the present—aware of the past and the future, but feeling the weight of neither.
It was Al Sherman who taught his boys the three rules of songwriting: simple, singable, and sincere. “Save Your Sorrow (for Tomorrow),” the song that brought Robert Sherman home from the hospital, captures this sentiment. “If it’s tears you want to shed, take this tip from me / Save your sorrow for tomorrow / Smile awhile today.” It is the song of a Romantic, someone who hopes against hope that things won’t last. The world might be a massively large and complicated place but good songs come to those that wait.
Most of us will never know the entirety of this world, nor will we know its people as best we should. Maybe like Robert Sherman, we wouldn’t like everything we found. But surely the comforting smallness should be in humanity, not the world.