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 the 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.
***
As mentioned, there’s been a legal settlement between the heirs of Jack Kirby (at minimum, co-creator of half of the early Marvel Comics universe including X-Men, Fantastic Four and the Avengers) and Disney/Marvel. A lot of fanboys have it wrong that Kirby sued Marvel, or that Kirby’s heirs are just greedy. Here’s the report in Reuters, and Geeky Universe, and Kurt Busiek’s comments on CBR, which begin: “The amount of misinformation presented in this thread is staggering.”

SOMETHING must have spooked Disney/Marvel. They had won several preliminary decisions in lower courts, and the current composition of SCOTUS, where the Kirbys appealed, tends to support the corporations. In spite of it all, Dis/Mar thought it could lose, and worse, set precedent for other creators of that period. Maybe the amicus briefs noted by Busiek helped.

Maybe I can finally start seeing those Marvel movies again, which I had been avoiding until this case was settled. First up, The Avengers.

5 Responses to “The Lion: Mbube to Wimoweh”

  • CGHill says:

    If I remember correctly, there was a split within the Tokens on this song: Jay Siegel, then the lead, liked it, and the others didn’t.

    Miriam Makeba recorded a spiffy version of “Mbube” in 1960 — for RCA Victor, same label as the Tokens.

  • Leovi says:

    Very interesting history of this song.

  • ann nz says:

    Lion Sleeps Tonight Cover love this song, last yr our school had a whole school production, one class did this song,

    do u like to come to the Lord of the rings?

  • That 1939 Solomon Linda and the Evening birds Mbube is an absolutely fabulous piece of music, too short at 2:43. (And the intro, which you advise we skip, is great.) Thanks for linking to it. As a little kid I heard The Tokens version first, which sounded to me like they were singing “a wingoweck a wingoweck.” Later when I got older that The Tokens version made me cringe. But I’d always heard there was a more basic original version out there somewhere. …That Miriam Makeba version that CG Hill mentions is also excellent, always loved how she handled the song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6AAtKmx6Qk

  • Roger says:

    I wasn’t suggesting cutting the intro, but to do the comparisons from there.

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