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
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.
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.
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.
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
…..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