Behind The Song: “It’s A Small World” by Richard & Robert Sherman

Richard Sherman on the origins of the most performed song of all time

“People either love me for it, or hate me,” said Richard Sherman about this song he wrote with his brother in 1964. Because of its endless repetition every day at the Disneyland attraction and the other Disney parks, some have come to loathe it. Others, however–like my own mom–adored it.

His was a charmed career, working in tandem with his big brother Robert as staff songwriters at Disney, hired by Walt Disney himself to write classic songs for classic films. “We were very lucky, ” he said in a 2009 interview for this magazine at the Hamburger Hamlet on the Sunset Strip. He was treated like royalty there, because in the songwriter’s world, he is. Many times during lunch people would come to pay their respects, which he graciously accepted. “We wrote songs for the world’s greatest storyteller.” 

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The story of “It’s A Small World” is an exception among their Disney songs because it was written not for a film, but for an amusement park boat ride through the cultures of the world.

The ride premiered at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York before being installed permanently at Disneyland. It became one of the most beloved of all Disney attractions, and soon a key mainstay at all the Disney theme parks which came after the original in Anaheim; in Orlando, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Because of the fact that for many decades the song plays on an endless loop, 16 hours per day, at each park around the world, in overlapping time-zones–it has the distinction of being the most performed, and most translated, song of all time.

Yes, there are those who insist that use on a Disney ride should not be considered a ‘performance’ of a song equal to that of radio play. They insist that The Beatles’ “Yesterday” by McCartney is the actual winner. 

Richard Sherman smiled gently as he swiftly laid aside this distinction, which to him didn’t matter. What mattered to him was the phenomenal life of this one song, which–even in their career of writing many standards–stands alone. More than a half-century since its birth, the world has changed. Walt Disney is gone, as is his brother Robert Sherman. The reality of becoming a full-time staff songwriter at a major studio is long gone.

But one thing remains, and is not even slightly diminished by the passing of time: the song.

“Not all music statistics can be established using conventional means,” he said. “Since 1983, there has not been a moment when ‘It’s A Small World’ wasn’t playing in at least two locations on the globe. Who else can claim that?”

(L-R) Robert Sherman, Richard Sherman & Walt Disney, 1964.

It was also the source of a songwriting myth, which is clarified here, that the Sherman brothers earned money every time it was played, the way a songwriter of a TV theme song would. He laughed when asked about it, saying, “I wish.” 

He explained that they do receive royalties when the song is used outside of the park, in a TV show or movie. But usage within the park is considered work-for-hire, for which they were paid once.

“The Mouse,” as many refer to Disney here in Hollywood, is notoriously tight.

The sons of Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman, the Sherman Brothers wrote pop songs first before working for Disney. Their song “You’re Sixteen” was a rockabilly-pop hit for Johnny Burnette in 1960, and a hit again in 1973, as recorded by Ringo Starr. 

Walt Disney’s vision of creating classic movies for kids always included a soundtrack of classic songs. This required finding songwriters who could write them, and the Shermans were a wise and fortuitous choice. They were hired in 1961 to write songs for Mary Poppins. They wrote an amazing song cycle, including the Grammy-winning “Chim-Chim Cheree” as well as Walt’s favorite song ever, “Feed The Birds.” 

It was not written for a movie, but for the ride at Disneyland, in which it is played non-stop, over and over, in English and other languages.

Originally called “The Children of the World,” it showed children frolicking in the traditional garb of every land. At first, Disney’s plan was to have the national anthems of each country play as the ride passes through each scene. This created a sonic cacophony of monstrous proportions–which was comically ironic, considering the intended theme of global harmony.

But Walt Disney knew the solution. A song by the Sherman Brothers. A song as simple and tuneful as an old folk song: easy to remember, and also to translate into many languages.

The brothers brilliantly devised a kind of round-delay form; the verse and chorus have different melodies, but over the same chord changes. Like the traditional rounds in old music, the two melodies can be sung at the same time, and intertwine melodically and rhythmically. In this way, the song changes with each scene, but harmony is maintained throughout.  

[It’s a method often used by Tom Petty and others for songs in which the verses and chorus have the same changes, but the melody is entirely different. “Free Fallin’” is a perfect example–as the chords never change, yet that chorus takes the melody into a whole other altitude.]

Opening Day for “It’s A Small World” was April 22, 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. It was a tremendous success; over ten million tickets (60¢ for kids, 95¢ for adults) were sold, with proceeds going to UNICEF.

“A salute to the children of the world, designed by Walt Disney,” proclaimed the Official Guide Book. “It presents animated figures frolicking in miniature settings of many lands. Visitors are carried past the scenes in small boats. In an adjoining building, Pepsi sponsors exhibits by the U.S. Committee for the United Nations Children’s Fund. Above the pavilion rises the 120-foot Tower of the Four Winds, a fanciful creation of coloured shapes that dance and twist in the breeze.”

“It’s A Small World”
By Robert B. Sherman & Richard M. Sherman

It’s a world of laughter
A world of tears
It’s a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There’s so much that 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 ev’ryone
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
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

© Walt Disney Music Company, Wonderland Music Company Inc.

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