Hello there! This edition of Tim’s Cover Story tells the fascinating story of a song that originated as a popular tune in South Africa in the 1930s, then morphed into a folk classic in the 50s and finally emerged as a #1 rock song in 1963. It provides insight into the way songs are transformed as they move from one culture to another. It also touches on the issue of intellectual property rights – who “owns” the rights to a song, particularly as it crosses from one country to another, or when it can be classified as a folk or traditional song?
Solomon Linda and Mbube:
Our story begins in South Africa in the 1930s, where Zulu musician Solomon Linda was trying to establish himself in the Ladysmith area of Natal. According to Wikipedia, Linda:
was familiar with the traditions of amahubo and izingoma zomtshado (wedding songs) music. He attended the Gordon Memorial mission school where he learned somewhat about Western musical culture, hymns, and choir contests in which he participated. Influenced by the new syncopated music that had been introduced into South Africa from the US during the 1880s, he included it in the Zulu songs he and his friends sang at weddings and feasts.
Linda headed a choir group called the Evening Birds, made up of boyhood friends from his hometown of Pomeroy. They gained a regional following from their performances at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. The Wikipedia article describes them as “a very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes“. And here are the Evening Birds looking very dapper indeed (Linda is on the far left).
In 1939, Linda and the Evening Birds recorded Mbube, Zulu for “lion.” The song was a big hit in South Africa, though the rights to the song were purchased by his record agency Gallo Record Company for slightly less than $2! Bill DeMain says that as compensation, [Gallo Records] also gave him a job sweeping floors and serving tea in their packing house.
The story of artists and songwriters being short-changed by agents, publishers and record companies is a recurring refrain throughout the early history of rock music, as it was for all forms of music in this era. It brings to mind Woody Guthrie’s lines “some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen”.
The Evening Birds arrangement incorporates the “isicathamiya” style, which should be familiar to anyone familiar with African groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Linda started with traditional African choral music and introduced a number of stylistic innovations. Unlike barbershop quartet where one person takes each part, the Evening Birds featured three bass singers, along with an alto, a tenor and Linda singing lead falsetto. The song evokes a hypnotic chorus. Although the tempo is much slower than The Tokens’ pop version, the overall nature of the song remained fairly constant as it transitioned from South African choral style to folk classic to pop smash.
Here are the Evening Birds with Mbube. The audio quality of the 30s recording is crap, but the power and beauty of the song remain. What a great find!
Pete Seeger and Wimoweh:
The next actor in this drama is singer and activist Pete Seeger. Seeger was arguably the best-known figure in folk music, inheriting the mantle of folk-protest movement leadership from Woody Guthrie. We will encounter him frequently during the coming months. He was a titanic figure in American folk music and political activism for seven decades, and his contributions to folk music (both original and adapted) are legendary. Seeger’s 5-string banjo, his bright clear voice and his unshakeable convictions were a ubiquitous presence in virtually every progressive movement of the past century – union rallies, the civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement, environmental activism, even the recent Occupy movement. His death in January 2014 at the age of 94 truly marked the end of an era.
My early musical tastes tended towards folk music. Inspired by the four-record Vanguard collection Folk Songs and Minstrelsy, I listened intently to Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Cisco Houston and of course Pete Seeger. I bought a banjo and laboriously copied Seeger’s clawhammer style. I made some progress but eventually gave up when I couldn’t master Scruggs-style bluegrass picking. But I always admired Seeger and you have to admit – the man was everywhere in the past half century!
In the 1940s the song Mbube caught the attention of Alan Lomax, who was scouring the globe collecting folk songs and traditional music. Naturally, Lomax took the song to his colleague Pete Seeger. Seeger loved the South African song, however he called it Wimoweh as he misunderstood the title. Seeger roughly translated Linda’s Zulu lyrics to English while retaining nearly all the melody. His adaptation was a hit with his folk group The Weavers, and later became one of the most popular songs in Seeger’s solo repertoire. In 1959 the Kingston Trio produced a fairly mundane version of the song, but one that gained attention due to the extraordinary popularity of the Trio at that time.
Here is a clip of Pete Seeger performing Wimoweh on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy’s Penthouse in February 1960. Seeger has the audience divide up into two groups. One group sings the bass part, while a second simply repeats “a-Wimoweh” eight times (audiences at Seeger concerts were prepared to sing along, often in three-part harmony, even if they are in formal dress like this group). After they master their parts, they sing along while Seeger provides Solomon Linda’s falsetto solo.
(Click on the link to get the video).
By the way, is that Hugh Hefner at the front of the audience on the right-hand side? This performance is vintage Seeger – the clawhammer banjo playing, his inspired adaptations, audience participation, and most of all Pete’s effervescent personality. It is also notable because at that time Seeger was still blackballed by American network TV because of his leftist views. That same year the city of San Diego tried to cancel a Pete Seeger concert at a local high school unless he signed an oath “pledging that the concert would not be used to promote a communist agenda or an overthrow of the government.” A subversive instrument, that 5-string banjo!
The Tokens and The Lion Sleeps Tonight:
Next jump ahead to 1961 and the Brill Building, the epicenter of East-Coast pop music at the time. Producers Hugo & Luigi had heard the Weavers and Kingston Trio folk versions of the song, so they hired songwriter George David Weiss to provide additional lyrics to Wimoweh. The song was given to The Tokens, a doo-wop quartet from Brooklyn who first formed in 1955 with Neil Sedaka as one of their original members. The Tokens were active players in the New York rock scene of that day, producing and playing backup on the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine and other pop songs. Here is a photo of The Tokens in 1961. The group was obviously influenced by ensembles like The Four Freshmen and are sporting hair that is provocatively long by pre-Beatles standards.
Despite the fact that by 1961 Mbube/Wimoweh had already been recorded multiple times, The Tokens were not deterred, and they added a number of “signature” features. First, lead singer Jay Siegel took on the falsetto vocals introduced by Solomon Linda. Next, they brought opera singer Anita Darian into the studio to add vocal flair. Finally, they added in a hefty dollop of tribal drums. The song was initially intended to be the “B” side of The Tokens’ Tina, but once the record was released — shazam! The Lion Sleeps Tonight rocketed to a #1 hit and pop music immortality. The Tokens continued to produce records and scored a few more top-40 singles, but nothing that matched the impact of this song.
So here is the original Tokens’ 1961 single from Spotify:
And here are The Tokens performing their great hit at a recent “oldies” concert. It’s 50 years after the release of their one big hit but the group can still belt out the song, and they brought along a soprano to provide the soaring high notes. What a great pop arrangement. As soon as you hear the first notes from Jay Siegel, you will be singing this song in the shower – you can’t help yourself! It’s one of the most infectious sing-along tunes in history. Weeee-eee-eee-eee-um-um-a-wimoweh!
As the song made the transition from Mbube to Wimoweh, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and finally to the Disney musical The Lion King, Solomon Linda’s creative contribution was largely forgotten. Linda died nearly penniless in 1962. Bill DeMain reviewed the tangled history of this song for Performing Songwriter.
The inequity went on for years, with Linda’s survivors never questioning the meager royalty checks they received (from 1991-2000, the years that Disney’s The Lion King ruled on screen, VHS, DVD and stage, they got approximately $17,000). In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote an exposé for Rolling Stone, embarrassing several major players in the music publishing world and attracting lawyers to Linda’s family. In 2002, director Francois Verster furthered the cause with A Lion’s Trail, a documentary tracing the long journey of “Mbube” to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” … When lawyers finally sorted it out in February 2006, Linda’s survivors began receiving the compensation they deserve (the settlement applies to royalties dating back to 1987).
So the Mbube story has a belated happy ending, and Pete Seeger supported the efforts to provide support for Solomon Linda’s heirs. However, it’s worth noting that the Weavers’ version of this song was credited as being written by “Paul Campbell.” In fact, this was a pseudonym used by Weavers’ management in order to claim publishing rights when the group adapted a traditional song. Seeger later noted “I didn’t realize what was going on, and I regret it. I have always left money up to other people. I was kind of stupid.”
Wikipedia, The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Wikipedia, Solomon Linda
Wikipedia, Pete Seeger
Wikipedia, The Tokens
Bill DeMain, Performing Songwriter 95, July 2006
Woody Guthrie, Pretty Boy Floyd