Of The Lion Sleeps Tonight

The urge to sing The Lion Sleeps Tonight is always a whim away; a whim away, a whim away, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight
In the jungle, the quiet jungle
The lion sleeps tonight

sketched by me ^_^

The song also very close to the surface because recently The Lion King (the only real one I recognise) was showing on TV and I amused my niece by showing how I knew the script word for word as she just starred at me in jaw-dropping bewilderment like a creature being presented on Pride Rock.

As I sang along to The Lion Sleeps Tonight, I wondered if the song had been created specifically for the Disney animated motion picture and so, of course, I had to go looking….

History of The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Originally, the song was written and recorded by Solomon Linda under the title “Mbube” for the South African Gallo Record Company in 1939. Solomon Linda and his group the Evening Birds would usher in a brand of acapella music which would be known as Mbube music a precursor to the more currently popular African choral genres mbaqanga and iscathamiya.

Solomon Linda and the evening birds
Solomon Linda, far left, and the Evening Birds

Mbube

Mbube pronounced (EEM-boo-beh) means Lion in Zulu. It’s said the song could have been inspired from Solomon Linda’s childhood when he was a cattle herder and the lions were predators they had to watch out for.

The song was a commercial success becoming one of the first African record to sell over 100,000 copies although Solomon Linda only received 10 shillings for signing over the copyright of “Mbube” to Gallo Studios. He wound up with a job sweeping floors, serving tea and packing records at the record company.

Mbube 
Solomon Linda's version

Wimoweh

Folk music historian Alan Lomax played the song for Pete Seeger which led to Pete and his folk group The Weavers in 1952 recording an adapted version with Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra and chorus.

The track was sung and recorded as “Wimoweh” after a mishearing of the original song’s chant “Uyimbube” meaning You are a lion in Zulu.

This version was simply a singing of the title “Wimoweh” with vocal flourishes over simple chords and credited the song as “Traditional” the arrangement credit going to a “Paul Campbell,” a pseudonym for the group The Weavers.

Wimoweh
The weavers and Gordon Jenkins and his chorus and orchestra

Though Pete Seeger never claimed the song as his, he introduced the song in performance with the story of how he heard the song while visiting Africa and described folk roots of the song with a detail predating Linda’s version.

The track made the top 10 Billboard and had cover versions done by extensively by other folk revival groups, such as the Kingston Trio in 1959.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

In 1961, RCA Records producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore hired George David Weiss to arrange the song into a pop cover for group The Tokens, he added the lyrics and “Wimoweh” became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which climbed charts to number 1 on the Hot 100 Billboard

The lion sleeps tonight
Weiss - Peretti - Creatore
The Tokens

…..And meanwhile Solomon Linda

Somewhere in all that Solomon Linda was forgotten and never quite getting Royalties from the ensuing success of what was essentially his melody and concept. He died in 1962 with not much in the bank even though locally in he was somewhat a legend.

In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote an exposé for Rolling Stones which exposed and shamed players in the music industry with the question what happened to about 15 Million in royalties and in 2002, director Francois Verster created an award-winning documentary tracing the long journey of “Mbube” to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” titled A Lion’s Trail which further put a spotlight on the song and the lawsuit between Linda’s estate and Disney.

Ownership of “Mbube,” “Wimoweh” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was a tangled mess as Linda Solomon (who had been illiterate) had initially signed over rights to Gallo, then his wife and daughters had twice done the same in the years following but eventually, a 1911 legal clause was used to revert copyright to Linda’s Estate after 25 years.

In February 2006, Linda’s descendants began receiving the compensation (the settlement applied to royalties dating back to 1987) and the arrangement was to end in December 2017, just a year and a half before The Lion King remake was made, you could say at the time no one had any idea a remake would come along

So yeah again in the jungle, the unjust jungle, Linda’s estate still not benefiting from the digital remake of The Lion King.

Who really owns the song?

In 2012, “Mbube” fell into the public domain due to the copyright law of South Africa. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, however, is still in copyright.

Some argue that Solomon Linda did not write the song but improvised a traditional Zulu song sung when a king has passed away. Some have claimed that the “lion” represented the great king of the Zulus, Shaka Zulu. The references to the lion sleeping were a coded message that colonial rule would not defeat the Zulu people, who would one day wake up…

But then looking at the words about a lion sleeping “in the jungle, the mighty jungle” were NOT from the original African version of the song. Lions live in the savannah, not the rainforest.

A brief rundown of part of the complicated journey of this track

~B

30 Comments

  1. I did read about it in Rolling Stone Magazine a few years back. I’m glad the family did get some compensation, though very late and not nearly as much as they should have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldnt find details on how much they eventually got settled with but its said to have been enough for them to live “comfortably”
      if someone hadnt started asking questions they might have never gotten even that, so at least the wheels eventually shifted.
      The jungle of copyrights is such a cut-throat put your signature in the wrong place and you will watch others wine and dine off your sweat.
      ~B

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting post! I had no idea this song was so old and all the back story so very interesting. I’m so happy the family got some compensation, so sad not as much as they probably deserved! When I first started reading your post I was singing along with the lyrics! Lol 🤣 and you are some kind of artist!! Those are great drawings of them Lions!! 👍🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised too to learn that there is so much back story to the song, I was singing as I started writing this post hahaha and its actually fun listening to the different versions and listening to the transitions from one version to the next (if one doesn’t consider the cultural appropriation and copyright violations and downright dubious sheningans of the music industry) at least the family eventually got something
      Oh you are far too kind ^_^
      ~B

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I definitely think Disney waited for the compensation agreement to lapse, but what do I know? I’m glad they eventually got something out of it although it nowhere near what they deserve.
    P.s you are not alone. I do not recognise the “digital” version either. It does have “ka that” that the original has

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have the sneaky suspicion Disney waited out the time limit before making/releasing the remake which we refuse to recognise

      ~B
      PS Mufasa’s death really cut deep

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The song was a commercial success becoming one of the first African record to sell over 100,000 copies although Solomon Linda only received 10 shillings for signing over the copyright of “Mbube” to Gallo Studios. He wound up with a job sweeping floors, serving tea and packing records at the record company.

    That really broke my heart! May we never sell our birth rights/ destinies/ legacies knowingly or unknowingly!

    A Great post B. Thanks for a meticulous research and sharing. I’ve got to share this with my brother. A history enthusiast!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. One of the things I love about the internet age we live in, at the tip of your fingers you can easily find out things which years ago people died without ever knowing.
        I ran into all this back story when all I wanted to know was hey who sang that song from the lion king, and stumbled into this curious tale of cultural entanglement.
        ~B

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It was quite a learning curve for me too… Still in shock at the injustice of it all but the progression of the track was really quite fascinating the way each decade a new adaptation was shared added to the song till it ended up the version mostly known
      ~B

      Like

  5. Great stuff Beaton. Of course, many of us are so given to the mental seize disorder of looping the ( last song we hear x it’s bio-sticky factor) for some number of hours, days or weeks. In the role I was born into and lived through, I heard this song often. As you seem to already know well, it is very catchy and loops for at lease several days, taking hostage any spare, unless mental focus. I only just now read this post and am already on my 3rd pass though the popular version we grew up on here. The only cure I’ve found, which only works just over half the time is a strong, brisk dose of Barry Manilow or certain songs from the original Celtic Women.

    But your point about the tangled mess of compensating the creator or his family with some of the money raised by artists or music publishers, there is little (which is repeatable within polite company) to be said. I don’t feel any better for learning about how unjustly the creators of any art form, idea, written piece or any other entertainment creation are treated in Africa because my sense is that here, we treat them about as badly.

    In the courtroom, the mighty courtroom, trues justice sleeps tonight.
    In that courtroom, the blemished courtroom, artists are left to fight.

    Liked by 1 person

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