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Solomon Linda, Songwriter Who Penned ‘The Lion,’ Finally Gets His Just Desserts

Solomon Linda and the Original Evening BirdsSolomon Linda and the Original Evening Birds (1941)

The NY Times reports the happy conclusion of one of songwriting’s worst cases of exploitation in the history of the profession. In 1938, a young South African Zulu improvised one of the most amazing songs written in this century, Mbube (hear it)–or as it came to be called in the rest of the world, The Lion. The man was Solomon Linda who, with his group the Original Evening Birds, recorded the song in 1939 just as Europe rushed to war. The song became a smash hit in Africa selling as many as 100,000 copies. What did Linda see of this success? Hardly anything. He signed over his rights to the song to his record company for the equivalent of 87 cents. Oh, and he got a lifetime sinecure of sweeping the record plant and delivering tea to workers.
Mbube Roots: Zulu Choral Music from South Africa, 1930\'s-1960\'s
Linda did enjoy immense popularity in the South Africa music scene. The musical style represented by the song swept the nation and ‘Mbube’ became not just a song title but an entire genre. Linda became the undisputed musical king of his day till his untimely death from kidney failure in 1962. He died a pauper with $22 in his bank account. But before he died he did get to hear the Weavers megahit adaptation of his song, which they named Wimoweh (a mishearing by Pete Seeger of the Zulu refrain Ayimbube).

We would hardly know this much about Solomon Linda and Mbube were it not for Rian Malan, who wrote In the Jungle, an wonderfully obsessive four-part expose about Linda’s mistreatment at the hands of the American record industry, published by Rolling Stone in 2000. Here’s how Malan memorably sets the scene for Linda’s first recording of the song:

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 beeswax, which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a very big hit in that part of Africa.

The Times story recounts the genesis of the song from Linda’s childhood as a shepherd in the Zulu hinterlands:

“The lion was going round and round, and the lion was happy,” she [Linda’s daughter] said. “But my father was not happy. He had been staying there since morning and he was hungry.” The lyrics were spartan — just mbube and zimba, which means “stop” — but its chant and harmonies were so entrancing that the song came to define a whole generation of Zulu a cappella singing, a style that became known simply as Mbube.

In the late 1940s, the South African record company that owned the rights to the song shipped copies to Decca Records to see if they might be interested in releasing it. They weren’t. But Alan Lomax, who together with his father were the premier collectors of traditional music in the world, worked at Decca and he thought his friend Pete Seeger might have an interest. Being the genius of a musical popularizer that he was, Seeger immediately took to the riveting male soprano voice and decided to adapt it. The result was Wimoweh (hear it), which would have become a sensation for The Weavers but for the fact that the Red Scare shut down their career almost precisely at the moment when the song began taking off.

Seeger later recorded his own solo cover of the song Wimoweh (hear it). It is an electrifying, transcendant performance and finds Seeger at the height of his musical powers. It nust be heard to be believed.

It is uncomfortable to speak of musical heroes like Seeger and the Weavers participating, even unwittingly in the exploitation of Solomon Linda’s musical legacy. But it must be acknowledged. The Weavers certainly knew that Linda wrote the song (since the LP they received from Lomax listed his name). At any rate, when the Weavers recording came out it credited the song to Paul Campbell, a pseudonym used whenever the group recorded a song whose copyright was in question. It is possible that this decision was made by the Weavers management team (one of whom was Harold Leventhal) and the group member’s were not aware of it at the time.

But as Malan writes below, they had to be aware of it by the time the royalties started rolling in (which were shared with the group members):

This didn’t sit well with Seeger, who openly acknowledged Solomon as the true author of “Wimoweh” and felt he should get the money. Indeed, Seeger had been hassling his publishers for months to find a way of paying the Zulu.

“Originally they were going to send the royalties to Gallo [the South African record company],” Seeger recalled. “I said, `Don’t do that, because Linda won’t get a penny.’ “Anti-apartheid activists put Seeger in touch with a Johannesburg lawyer, who set forth into the forbidden townships to find Solomon Linda. Once contact was established, Seeger sent the Zulu a $1,000 check and instructed his publisher to do the same with all future payments.

He was still bragging about it fifty years later. “I never got author’s royalties on `Wimoweh,’ “Seeger said. “Right from ’51 or ’52, I understood that the money was going to Linda. I assumed they were keeping the publisher’s fifty percent and sending the rest.”

Unfortunately, Solomon’s family maintains that the money only arrived years later, and even then, it was nothing like the full writer’s share Seeger was hoping to bestow.

I must add another curious story of musical theft attributed to Gordon Jenkins, the Weavers musical arranger. When the group recorded Tzena, Tzena and it became a great hit, Jenkins took songwriting credit for himself. When the actual songwriter, a young Israeli immigrant named Issachar Miron found out about this he was none too happy. He filed suit and in a landmark decision in copyright law, the judge found in favor of Miron and its copyright reverted to him. So it appears that some of those associated with the Weavers have a history of violating the musical rights of others.

The next stage in the history of this music phenomenon belongs to a group of teenagers from Brooklyn who formed a doo-wop group called The Tokens. The lead singer knew The Weavers’ version and suggested to their record company that they cover it. The producers, being the 1950s Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths that they were, were slightly aghast at the prospect of recording an South African song with no English lyrics and barely any lyrics at all. So they dug up a musical arranger who dreamed up a mythical setting for the song replete with a sleeping village and a menacing lion.

Malan describes the process by which The Lion Sleeps Tonight was born:

So George Weiss took “Wimoweh” home with him and gave it a careful listen. A civilized chap with a Juilliard degree, he didn’t much like the primitive wailing, but the chant was OK, and parts of the melody were very catchy. So he dismantled the song, excised all the hollering and screaming, and put the rest back together in a new way The chant remained unchanged, but the melody – Solomon Linda’s miracle melody – moved to center stage, becoming the tune itself, to which the new words were sung: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle. . . ”

The song was recorded live in RCA’s Manhattan studios on July 21st, 1961, with an orchestra in attendance and some session players on guitar, drums and bass. The percussionist muted his timpani, seeking that authentic “jungle drum” sound. A moonlighting opera singer named Anita Darian practiced her scales. Conductor Sammy Lowe tapped his baton and off they went, three Tokens doing the wimowehs, while Jay Siegel took the lead with his pure falsetto and Darian swooped and dived in the high heavens, singing the haunting countermelodies that were one of the song’s great glories. Three takes (again), a bit of overdubbing, and that was more or less that. Everyone went home, entirely blind as to what they’d accomplished.

And to give us some sense of the impact that this version of the song had on two songwriting greats:

We’re talking about a pop song so powerful that Brian Wilson had to pull off the road when he first heard it, totally overcome; a song that Carole King instantly pronounced “a motherfucker.”

Finally, one of the Disney folks working on The Lion King decided that a warthog and meerkat should walk off into the sunset singing the song again in that film. When it became a smash sensation, it again added to the record of shame against Solomon Linda. Disney never paid his family a red cent. Malan consults with music industry attorneys and comes up with the figure of $10-20 million in song revenue. How much had his family seen by then? About $12,000 (by 2000).

In researching his article, Malan made the family aware of what it’s rights were. He helped them find attorneys to begin the battle for financial restitution. And after five years (or sixty-five years if you go all the way back to 1939), Malan’s obsessive labors were rewarded with a generous settlement for Linda’s survivors. They had asked for $1.5-million in their suit. Though no figure was provided it appears the family will be quite comfortable. Unhappily, Linda’s youngest daughter, Adelaide, died of AIDS in 2001 because she could not afford the retroviral drugs necessary to bring her illness into remission.

I was amazed by this closing interview with Linda’s daughter:

“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.’ “

I’m not sure those who exploited Solomon Linda deserve such forgiveness (and I’m not sure Linda’s daughter is as eager to forgive as her own daughter is).

The Soweto Gospel Choir has also recorded a mesmerizing version of Mbube-The Lion Sleeps Tonight in which it slows the tempo down and plumbs the spiritual depths of the original with a riveting male and female solo vocal. Pure joy.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Dan Sniderman March 27, 2006, 7:18 AM

    As a musician myself, I’m never amazed at the depths of depravity of the music business. This story is such a case in point. I’m rarely failed to be reminded how happy I am that I don’t have to rely on it to feed my family…

  • Antiquated Tory March 29, 2006, 5:22 AM

    Just found your blog through The Head Heeb and find it most interesting and well-written.

    However, I can’t help but point out that the phrase is ‘just deserts,’ as in ‘what one justly deserves,’ not ‘just desserts,’ as in ‘a particularly righteous selection of puddings.’

  • Roman Edirisinghe March 31, 2006, 9:54 AM

    How sad that the musical industry exploits artists in such a manner.

    No wonder the record industry is angry that musicians are taking matters into their own hands by skipping the industry altogether, via such companies as cdbaby and others…

  • Leah Johanna March 4, 2011, 5:20 PM

    Thank you for this article with the sound clippings. I’ve always found this song so haunting and knew there was a story behind it. How wonderful of Rian Malan to bring a happier ending to the story.

  • TomSongs January 22, 2012, 6:58 AM

    Thank you for sharing this important story.

  • Billy Myers April 19, 2012, 3:27 PM

    Im sure no one is surprised. Look at the history of black music in this country. An endless number of blues players
    most of whom had the same fate; blind, homeless, sick
    and broke. Take rock bands for example like Led Zeppelin.
    Jimmy Page even took writing credit for songs he stole.
    Not many of the blues writers got any credit. Willie
    Dixon’s family sued and received royalties but that was
    a rare case. Greed is an evil phenomenon.

  • Hans de Groot April 17, 2015, 12:48 AM

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this informative article. I stumbled across it whilst looking up the lyrics again for my young son who loves the song, and being South African then surprised me with the history I was unaware of.

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