Hip to be Square
“Wbube” by Solomon Linda & the Evening Birds (1939)
“Wimoweh” by the Weavers (1955)
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens (1961)
Not surprisingly really; this song's origin is really in Africa. The guy that wrote it died a popper and his daughters tried to get royalties with limited success. Wimoweh is kind of a corruption of the native word ‘Uyimbube’, a Zulu word which means ‘you are a lion’. Solomon, a cleaner and record packer for Gallo Record Company in South Africa yodelled his way through this compelling chant with the inspired lyric “in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”. By 1949 this version of the song had sold over 100, 00 copies in Africa with its isicathamiya style (mbube), popularized by Ladysmith Black Mamabazo that Paul Simon introduced to us on his ‘Graceland’ album.
Some have argued that this song does not sound like the Tokens version, but I believe that the essence of the chanting and the lyric are the song. The blending of voices and the soaring falsetto are trademarks of the song. It is hard to say it is not an original sound and an original lyric.
Clearly the more sophisticated harmonies of the doo-wop groups of the 50’s had seared certain vocal harmonies and patterns on the psyche of the North American public. By chance the late, great blues historian Alan Lomax working at the time for Decca records, brought the record of Solomon Linda to the attention of Pete Seeger of the folk group ‘The Weavers1’. In 1951 after adopting the song and performing it for a year, they recorded “Wemoweh”.
The interpretation that Pete Seeger had of this song was that Shaka, the warrior king of the Zulus was sleeping in the mountains and will one day awaken and lead his oppressed people to freedom. The Texas folklorist Veit Erlmann has an alternate interpretation, and says that maybe the song’s more literal meaning refers to an incident in Linda's own life when he actually killed a lion. The Weavers version of the song went to number 5 on the Billboard charts.
In 1961 the RCA producers Hugo Peritti and Luigi Creatore (known as Huge and Luge) set out to make a stylized version of “Wimoweh”. They enlisted Julliard-trained lyricist George Weiss, who came up with new English lyrics. They combined this with Opera singer Anita Darian’s ‘descant’ to recording done by the new group, The Tokens. The Tokens who were big fans of the Weavers version were apparently appalled by what Huge and Luge were doing, but went along. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” went straight to number one proving them to be right.
Of course Solomon was paid a fee to record the song originally and Gallo Record Company owned the song rights. This was not unusual anywhere at the time. Seeger argued that the song was ‘traditional’ and was in the public domain. Of course the tangled legal web that resulted when Disney made it popular once again in “The Lion King”, was good for millions in the lawyer’s pockets. Eventually, and partly due to the article written by Rian Malan a South African journalist, Solomon Linda’s daughters did get some money.
1. The Weavers were a groundbreaking folk group that recorded traditional folk, children’s songs, labour songs, and ballads. They inspired the folk movement that followed in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, spawning such groups as the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary.