Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Wimoweh, Mbube (1961,1952,1939)

"It has logged nearly three centuries' worth of continuous radio airplay in the U.S. alone. It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows." - Rian Malan, In the Jungle, Rolling Stone, May 25, 2000

Under the heading of "I did not know that" comes the backstory to how the baby boomer generation - and several after that - had occasion to exercise their vocal cords to the Tokens' recording of A Lion Sleeps Tonight. Some call it a case study in music industry exploitation.

The other night I was watching a Pete Seeger documentary on PBS and there he was, singing what sounded like a version of A Lion Sleeps Tonight without the lyrics. Figuring maybe he had been the composer of the song the Tokens immortalized, I started poking around.

Not quite. The Zulu musician Solomon Linda, who died destitute in 1962, has that distinction. His group, the Original Evening Birds - that's them in the picture - had a major hit with the song, originally called Mbube (lion) in 1939. It sold very well in South Africa but, not knowing any better, Linda signed over the rights to his British-based record company for mere schillings.

Linda was illiterate, originally a shepherd in his native township but later just one of many blacks who made up urban South Africa's unskilled labor force. His group sang on the weekends wherever blacks were allowed to go in Johannesburg and their act became quite a sensation. His high-pitched stylings were sung over a four-part harmony, in an a cappella vocal style they more or less pioneered that came to be called isicathamiya (more recently familiar owing to contemporary groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo). He didn't write it down; it just emerged from him and after a talent scout discovered the group, was eventually recorded, selling roughly 100,000 units.

The musicologist Alan Lomax, when he worked at Decca Records, came into possession of a stack of the original 78s from Africa and thought his friend Seeger might consider adapting it for his then-group the Weavers. Seeger was indeed attracted to the hypnotic syncopated chanting and vocal gymnastics so he did adapt it for the Weavers and later sang it on his own. Having apparently misheard the Zulu lyric Uyimbube, Seeger named the song Wimoweh.

Like many folk songs, it has been reinvented repeatedly, recorded by scores of artists and used in scores of films. The most famous example of the former was the Tokens' version in which the arranger George Weiss added lyrics to the existing Weavers' melody. The most famous example of the latter was the song's use in the movie blockbuster The Lion King. As Rian Malan, whose fascinating tale of injustice Rolling Stone published in 2000, described it, Solomon Linda has been "buried under several layers of pop-rock stylings, but you could still see him beneath the new song's slick surface, like a mastodon entombed in a block of clear ice."

Well, there were people who felt that mastodon should be excavated. The overall story surrounding this song is too involved to recount here (do read Malan's piece), but the upshot is that people and corporations made money off song royalties - wittingly and unwittingly - while Linda and his impoverished heirs fell through the cracks. Through sheer determination on the part of family and copyright lawyers, subsequent litigation led to a settlement that has redressed some of the inequities, at least going forward. Though I'll continue to exercise my vocal cords to Lion, I'll never hear it the same way again.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tired of Being Alone, Al Green (1971)

"He's a structurally unconventional composer whose lyrics veer savvily between stone-simple romantic vows and tormented reveries on the heaven-and-earth split that infuses and haunts all soul music." - Robert Christgau, liner notes to Al Green Anthology

Whatever your circumstances on Valentine's Day, we can all probably agree that there's no better ambassador for the power of love to ruin you or rock your world than Al Green.

Whichever one he's focused on, he's completely committed to it. This is a guy whose voice is the pulpit from which he testifies. His whole career, he's seesawed between secular and gospel music, and very publicly wrestled with which one of the two he was meant to be doing, but it's all of a piece to me.

That "heaven-and-earth split" that Christgau refers to above - it's just part of the same continuum (listen to Here I Am (Come and Take Me) and tell me where it falls); we get into trouble when we try to compartmentalize. Green has used his remarkable voice and distinctive songwriting talents in many different ways and they've all been legitimate. As he himself said in the Anthology liner notes, "I'm good and bad. I'm right, I'm wrong. I'm light and I'm darkness, I am spiritual and I love to hold my old lady's hand and walk on the beach." Too bad his own father, devoutly religious, kicked him out of the house when he was very young for listening to Jackie Wilson, of all people. It's no wonder he's spent a lifetime being conflicted.

Green's first gold record, Tired of Being Alone, is the product of him finding both his voice and having his desire to write his own songs acknowledged by the man who guided his early career, Memphis bandleader and Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell. Mitchell discovered Green performing in Texas, practically destitute, and convinced him - although not without some coaxing - to come to Memphis where Mitchell was sure he could make him a star.

Green sings in Tired of the alone that you can feel when you're "with" somebody, which can certainly be as dispiriting as having no one at all. But over the years it's proven to be a song that has certain anthemic qualities for people who are lonely in general. When the Hi Rhythm Section starts to kick it in the intro, I have the same cathartic reaction every time. One of these days I intend to get to Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis to see Reverend Al preach. I know it would be a transforming experience, like so much of his music.

It's not easy to open your heart; I tried it last year for the first time in far too long and felt glad to be doing it. In the end, I got my heart stomped on and I'm none too happy about it. But there's no balm like music. It cures what ails you, and it shall ever be thus.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sultans of Swing, Dire Straits (1978)

Curious thing about anomalies - you never know when they're going to come along, or why they do, but eventually they do. Like Barack Obama, for instance. How did he get here, when the world was so mired in wrongness? Yet, here he is.

I look at Dire Straits the same way. The late 70s in music was not pretty. So much dreck. Out of the blue, there's Sultans of Swing - a song so nuanced and startling that people sucked it up as if starving. Maybe it's a law of the universe that, after a steady diet of junk food, an organism will want to snap out of its unhealthy ways if given the opportunity to reverse the damage. As Peter Buckley said in The Rough Guide to Rock, "Despite the prevailing trends of punk and disco, the band's well-crafted songwriting and skilled playing unexpectedly appealed to over 7 million record buyers."

According to an interview with Guitar World, which crowned the song #22 in its compilation of the 100 greatest guitar solos of all time, Mark Knopfler wrote Sultans on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning, an arrangement he found "dull," and which he never played that way. A simple instrument change - to a '61 Stratocaster - made it into the thing of beauty it is today. (Muff Winwood, Steve's older brother, produced it.)

None other than Chet Atkins described what makes Knopfler's playing so distinctive. In addition to dispensing with the pick, "... he's a lefty playing right handed, so he's got a lot of power in his left hand. He can make a vibrato on multiple strings better than anyone I've heard," he says in his book Chet Atkins: Me and My Guitars. The two got such a kick out of each other they recorded an album (Neck and Neck) in 1989; here's a nifty clip of them playing together.