This is an ultimately bittersweet story that has so many sides and traverses so many years, it’s hard to know what to feel about it.
As simplistic as this song is, which is known as The Lion Sleeps Tonight, aka Wimoweh and originally Mbube by it’s writer, Solomon Linda, it has always been a wonderful soothing sound to me. I have listened to it off and on since my youth on radio, on TV, in movies. I didn’t really know why it did something for me on a much deeper level than the words. It certainly is a very catchy tune, and it would just hang in my mind long after I had heard it on the radio all through my life. And although I knew it’s words were fraught with danger, the upbeat music was soothing, uplifting. Maybe it did for many, even those who wished it would not. Over the years, I have tried to figure out what it is about the song that I felt on such a basic level despite the fact that I don’t generally like songs that just repeat over and over like that.
It reminds me very much of another song that has a similar effect, at least for me, and I would imagine many others might say the same about this one too: Banana Boat Song. The origins of this song were apparently much different than Mbube since no one can be directly attributed with it’s Jamaican folk song roots:
The origins of the “Banana Boat Song” are often stated incorrectly. The song was originally a Jamaican folk song of unknown authorship; it was sung by Jamaican banana workers, with the familiar melody and the common refrain (“daylight come and we wanna go home”), but with many different sets of lyrics, some possibly improvised on the spot. (more info in the Wikipedia article).
OK, so what started my mind going on this? What else … Injustice!
Let’s backtrack, recently a friend, affectionately known as Klok/Klokworkdog, sent me a very well written story in the NYT by Sharon LaFraniere entitled In the Jungle, the Unjust Jungle, a Small Victory.
This NYT story is what got me going on a quest to find out more about this song and the years and years of sadness, poverty, death and eventual minor and then later, a more major triumph for the Linda family. Bittersweet because Solomon Linda is long gone, and several children had died of various things that probably wouldn’t have happened if they had been awarded a fair deal in the beginning, and all along the way, by those who literally made millions due to Solomon’s original work which he and the band Evening Birds sang a capella way back in the late 1930s.
The Wikipedia article here quickly sums up the expose of this story, and the turn around for the Linda family this way:
In 2000 South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine, highlighting Linda’s story and estimating that the song had earned US $15 million for its use in The Lion King alone, this prompted the PBS television documentary “The Lion’s Trail”.
In July 2004 the song became the subject of a lawsuit between the family of its writer Solomon Linda and Disney. The suit claimed that Disney owed $1.6 million in royalties for the use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the film and stage production of The Lion King. Meanwhile, publisher of The Weavers’ “Wimoweh”, TRO/Folkways, began to pay $3000 annually to Linda’s heirs.
In February 2006 Linda’s heirs reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney. This settlement applies to worldwide rights, not just South African, since 1987.
Here’s a bit more history about this bittersweet story from this 2000 article on 3rd Ear Music. This is just a small section of a larger 3 part work that is well worth reading. (Part two also has an amazing expose on public domain musical pieces that were claimed by ‘writers’ who didn’t even exist in the real world. As I say this three part article is well worth reading.)
The intro on the page states:
Internationally renowned SAfrican author Rian Malan has researched & written a remarkable expose for Rolling Stone magazine in the USA, on the murky side of music’s international mainstream. It’s about SAfrican singer-songwriter Soloman Linda – The man who recorded & composed Mbube (aka – The Lion Sleeps Tonight / Whimaway / In the Jungle, etc.).
In part one of the article, the following can be found on the first page:
In The Jungle — it is one of the great musical mysteries of all time: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper. After six decades, the truth is finally told.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, a small miracle took place in the brain of a man named Solomon Linda. It was 1939, and he was standing in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in black Africa when it happened. He hadn’t composed the melody or written it down or anything. He just opened his mouth and out it came, a haunting skein of fifteen notes that flowed down the wires and into a trembling stylus that cut tiny grooves into a spinning block of bees wax, which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a very big hit in that part of Africa.
Later, the song took flight and landed in America, where it mutated into a truly immortal pop epiphany that soared to the top of the charts here and then everywhere, again and again, returning every decade or so under different names and guises. Navajo Indians sing it at powwows. Japanese teenagers know it as TK. ____________ Phish perform it live. Cybersurfers recognize it as the theme song of a hugely popular British website. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as R.E.M. and Glen Campbell, Brian Eno and Chet Atkins, the Nylons and ___ schlockmeister Bert Kaempfert. The New Zealand army band turned it into a march. England’s 1986 World Cup soccer squad turned it into a joke. Hollywood put it in Ace Ventura Pet Detective. It has logged nearly three centuries of continuous radio air play in the U.S. alone. It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows.
Its epic transcultural saga is also, in a way, the story of popular music, which limped pale-skinned and anaemic into the twentieth century but danced out the other side vastly invigorated by transfusions of ragtime and rap, jazz, blues and soul, all of whose blood lines run back to Africa via slave ships and plantations and ghettos. It was in the nature of this transaction that black men gave more than they got and often ended up with nothing.
This one’s for Solomon Linda, then, a Zulu who wrote a melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that his widow couldn’t afford a stone for his grave. Let’s take it from the top, as they say in the trade.
It does my heart good to see an artist/song writer’s family, after all the unbelievable suffering throughout the years, finally win against corporate/music industry moguls.
I guess in the end, the saying on Pete Seeger’s banjo did come true, at least for the Linda family … “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
I think that the tag on the NYT article was a real tribute to the family and the values they have lived by and instilled in their children:
Some injustices cannot be redressed: in 2001, Mr. Linda’s daughter Adelaide died of AIDS at age 38, unable to afford life-saving antiretroviral treatment.
“I was angry before,” said Ms. Nsele, who, as a government nurse, is one of the few of Mr. Linda’s descendants who is employed. “They didn’t ask permission. They just decided to do anything they wanted with my father’s song.”
“But now it seems we must forgive, because they have come to their senses and realized they have made a mistake,” Ms. Nsele said. “The Bible says you must try to forgive.”
“Not ‘try,’ ” her 17-year-old daughter Zandile corrected. “It says ‘forgive.’ “
Very powerful word .. so young and yet so wise regarding the true meaning of that one simple word “forgive.” One word that can forever alter one’s destiny. Not monetarily, but in the heart, where bitterness can eat one alive. Forgiveness is the key to getting past that bitterness.
And God knows this story has been a bitter pill to swallow.
So very well spoken Zandile…