The Lion: Mbube to Wimoweh

Mbube1938Way back in December 2008, Coverville, one of my favorite podcasts, presented an episode, #535, Mbube to Wimoweh – The Lion Sleeps Tonight Cover Story. It’s the narrative of a particular song you’ve probably heard.

This Wikipedia post tells how Mbube was a song written by Solomon Linda and recorded by him originally with the group the Evening Birds for the Gallo Record Company of South Africa in 1939.

In 1949, Alan Lomax, then working as folk music director for Decca Records, brought Linda’s 78 recording to the attention of his friend Pete Seeger of the folk group The Weavers. In November 1951, after having performed the song for at least a year in their concerts, The Weavers recorded an adapted version with brass and string orchestra and chorus as a 78 single entitled “Wimoweh”, a mishearing of the original song’s chorus of “Uyimbube”, Zulu: You are a lion… It reached Billboard’s top ten and became a staple of The Weavers’ live repertoire. It achieved mass exposure (without orchestra) in their best-selling The Weavers at Carnegie Hall LP album, recorded in 1955 and issued in 1957, and was covered extensively by other folk revival groups…

I always preferred the non-orchestrated version myself; here’s the live reunion version at Carnegie Hall.

Then:

In 1961, two RCA producers…engaged Juilliard-trained musician and lyricist George David Weiss to fashion an arrangement for a planned new pop music cover of “Wimoweh”… Weiss wrote English lyrics:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…
and
Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, etc.

He also brought in the soprano voice of opera singer Anita Darian to vocalize (reprising Yma Sumac)… her eerie descant sounding almost like another instrument. The Tokens, who loved The Weavers’ version of the song… were appalled and were initially reluctant to sing the new arrangement. But ultimately, they allowed themselves to be persuaded. Issued by RCA in 1961, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” rocketed to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

Why I am I thinking about this again? Because that copyright course I took a couple months ago had a reference to the history behind the controversy over “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and links to these three YouTube videos:

Linda’s “Mbube” – 1939 (start at 0:21)
The Weavers with Pete Seeger “Wimoweh” – 1952 (start at 1:13)
The Tokens “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – 1961 (start at 0:15)

Pete Seeger expressed concerns about the copyright laws associated with the song… Although Linda’s name was listed as a performer on the record, The Weavers assumed that the song was traditional. The Weavers’ managers and publisher and their attorneys, however, knew otherwise, because they were contacted by and reached an agreement with Eric Gallo of South Africa… As early as the 1950s, when Linda’s authorship was made clear, Seeger sent him a donation of one thousand dollars and instructed TRO/Folkways to henceforth donate his (Seeger’s) share of authors’ earnings.

But that did not happen.

“In July 2004, as a result of the publicity generated by [Rian] Malan’s Rolling Stone article and the subsequent filmed documentary, the song became the subject of a lawsuit between Solomon Linda’s estate and Disney,” who had used he song, albeit briefly, in the movie The Lion King. Linda’s heirs are finally getting rewarded for the use of a song that had gone through tremendous transformation.

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