Steyn does one of his typical Big Digs into the long, strange history of a song that’s been one of my absolute favorites since I was a kid, and still is.
In South Africa, it was huge. “Mbube” became not just the name of a hit record but of an entire vocal style – a high-voiced lead over four-part bass-heavy harmony. That, in turn, evolved into “isicathamiya”, a smoother vocal style that descended to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and others, taking its cue from the injunction “Cothoza, bafana” – or “tread carefully, boys”. That’s to say, Zulu stomping is fine in the bush, but when you’re singing in dancehalls and restaurants in you’ve got to be a little more choreographically restrained, if only for the sake of the floorboards.
“Tread carefully, boys” is good advice for anyone in the music business. A few years after Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds made their hit record, it came to the notice of Pete Seeger, on the prowl for yet more “authentic” “traditional” “vernacular” “folk music” for the Weavers to make a killing with. He misheard “Mbube” and transcribed it as “Wimoweh”. That’s a great insight into the “authenticity” of the folk boom: the most famous Zulu word on the planet was invented by a New York socialist in 1951…
Still, Seeger was chanting all the way to the bank. “Wimoweh” is a tune that works in any form – as big band (Jimmy Dorsey), folk-rock (Nanci Griffith), country (Glen Campbell), Euro-lounge (Bert Kaempfert), kiddie-pop (*NSync), reggae (Eek-A-Mouse) military march (the New Zealand Army Band), exotica (Yma Sumac), Yiddish (Lipa Schmeltzer), football singalong (the official theme of the 1986 England World Cup Squad). And that’s before we get to REM and They Might Be Giants and Baha Men, and, of course, The Lion King. Solomon Linda’s song has penetrated every corner of the globe. It’s the most famous tune ever to have come out of Africa.
He and his family must be multi-multi-millionaires, right? Not exactly. Linda sold it to the Gallo record company for ten shillings: that would be about 87 cents. Tread carefully, boy. In 1962, just as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was reaching Number One around the world, he died of kidney disease in Soweto, on the edge of Johannesburg, in a concrete hovel with a couple of bedrooms with dirt floors covered in cow dung. He left his widow the equivalent of $22 in the bank and unable even to afford a headstone for his grave. For the last decade he’d swept floors and made the tea at the packing house of the Gallo company. His family lived on a diet of maize porridge – “pap” – and chicken feet.
After Rian Malan drew attention to the plight of Solomon Linda’s heirs, a few music critics took the usual line on the subject. As Thomas R Gruning writes in Millennium Folk: American Folk Music Since The Sixties:
Beyond the economic implications of ‘Mbube/Wimoweh’, the musical development of the song in its different versions illustrates a highly charged symbolic field in which the violence done to Linda’s original piece further reinscribes contested and inequitable power relations between the West and Africa. That is, the issue shifts from conventional notions of cultural imperialism to a more convoluted and complicated process in which ‘plundering and counterfeiting of black culture’ denies the racial authenticities claimed by…
Zzzzzzz. That argument works fine with the likes of Hugo and Luigi and George Weiss. They’re Tin Pan Alley professionals, assignment men. Give Weiss a Broadway score, an Elvis movie theme, and a Zulu chant, and it’s all the same: that week’s job. Who knows what “authenticity” means to such a man? But the only reason the showbiz types were able to “reinscribe” the song in the first place is because of Pete Seeger and the other leftie folkies. The child of wealthy New York radicals, Seeger has always been avowedly anti-capitalist – supposedly. Yet his publisher had a deal with Gallo Music: they snaffled up the rights to “Mbube” cheap and in return sub-licensed to Gallo the South African and Rhodesian rights to “Wimoweh”. And Seeger knew Solomon Linda was the composer. Years later he would plead that back in the Fifties he instructed his publishers to give his royalties from the song to Linda, and he was shocked, shocked to discover decades later that they hadn’t in fact been doing so. But it never occurred to him, as an unworldly anti-capitalist, to check his royalty statements. It was, on his part, supposedly a sin of omission.
Gee, imagine that: another self-righteous, money-grubbing socialist who got rich ripping somebody else off. Why, I’m shocked, I tell you—SHOCKED!!!
Not everyone can plead the same accidental oversight. Having persuaded Linda to sign away his copyright four decades earlier, the relevant parties made sure to slide some forms in front of his illiterate widow in 1982 and his daughters some years later to make sure the appropriation paperwork was kept in order.
And for all Mr Gruning’s huffing about “cultural imperialism” above, it was, in the end, a legacy of colonialism that ended the injustice. There are significant differences between US and English copyright law, and one of them is that the latter attempts to restrain the damage a foolish creator can do to himself. Under British Commonwealth law, the ownership in any intellectual property reverts to the author’s heirs 25 years after his death regardless of what disadvantageous deals he may have signed. In the courtroom, the quiet courtroom, the lawsuit slept for decades, until Solomon Linda’s daughters were apprised of this significant feature of Commonwealth copyright law, and took action. The sleeping lion also took on the Mouse – the Walt Disney corporation, whose film The Lion King had introduced the song to a new generation of children. In America, Linda’s family really had no legal leg to stand on, but, faced with potentially catastrophic complications in Britain, South Africa, Australia, India and other key markets, Disney were only too keen to settle. In 2006, Solomon Linda finally received his due.
Fifteen improvised notes in 1939 powered Africa’s biggest selling record, an entire genre of music, and two separate hit songs on five continents. And, even though those 15 notes and the man who wrote them were buried under all the other names that encrusted to the work, in the end they’re what shine through.
In case you’re a young ‘un and haven’t yet grokked what song Steyn is going on about, this would be it:
The other versions have their merits, but this is the one I myself was smitten by as a kid, still cherish to this day, and most likely always will. Its 80-year backstory is fascinating; the Tokens’ own initial reaction to it is equally so, despite being another chapter of an old, familiar music-biz story:
Back in New York, the Tokens did as they were told but didn’t care for it. “We were embarrassed,” said Phil Margo, “and tried to convince Hugo and Luigi not to release it. They said it would be a big record and it was going out.” It had an orchestra, a trio of Tokens doing the wimoweh-ing, Jay Siegal’s falsetto, an opera singer with a spare half-hour who came in and did a bit of contrapuntal ululating. The first time the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson heard it he had to pull off the road he was so overawed. Carole King declared the record a bona fide “motherf—er”…
It hit Number One at Christmas 1961. Ilonka David-Biluska’s version, “De Leeuw Slaapt Vannacht“, reached Number One in the Netherlands. Henri Salvador’s “Le lion est mort ce soir” was Number One in France. Pace Phil Margo and Ilonka, it is, in fact, very hard not to make a ton of dough from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.
Label tells band to record song; band dislikes song, balks; song is a monster, career-boosting hit; band is forever after bemused by their initial disdain for the record that would unexpectedly bring ’em fame and fortune. Familiar as that story is, though, The Lion Sleeps Tonight seems to wield a magic almost unique in all of Western music; for a pop song particularly, the near-universality and longevity of its appeal is remarkable indeed. Love it or hate it, once you’ve heard it you’ll never forget it. I had it on 45 when I was a kid, and it’s in my Spotify library now. That’s power, people.