"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.