Probably my favourite album growing up was called something like “The Greatest Hits Ever Album” (I remember it had a pink and blue and orange cover and included The Coasters’ “Charlie Brown”). It was the only non-kids album we really got to listen to, and was full of pop hits from the 60’s.
But my second favourite song on the album (after “Charlie Brown”) was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. This article from The Age entitled “When plagiarism robs the poor of inspiration” reveals the fascinating history behind the song (including the fascinating tidbit that the chorus of “wim-o-weh” was Bob Seeger’s misunderstanding of the word uyiMbube, meaning “he is a lion”), and particularly the history of exploitation and injustice, which is deeply ironic given that this song made African music more accessible to the West.
It’s one of the world’s most popular songs. Whether we overhear our kids watching the movie or see The Lion King musical performed live in its Melbourne run, The Lion Sleeps Tonight makes the heart thump as the drums and Zulu chant call us to Africa.
The song’s original writer, Solomon Linda, can perhaps rest easy in his grave in his native South Africa, where he died in poverty from kidney disease in 1962, aged 53. Now, almost half a century later, someone has finally done the right thing. Or have they?
In an out-of-court settlement in February, Disney agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to Linda’s family. The family claimed the corporation owed them $US1.6 million ($2.2 million) in royalties for the use of the song in the film and stage productions.
While the amount of the settlement is unknown, lawyers said it would make the family quite comfortable. Anything would be an improvement on the dirt floor carpeted with cow dung on which Linda slept in Soweto with barely a stick of furniture, as described by Sharon LaFraniere in The New York Times last month.
Yet another famous entertainer is about to jump on the bandwagon by celebrating the man who was the issue’s original protagonist.
US Billboard magazine recently reported that the next album of working-class hero Bruce Springsteen, to be called We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions will be released next week. It will feature material long associated with Pete Seeger, who turns 87 next month.
On the face of it, this seems a lovely gesture to the folk music pioneer, but the question is: does he deserve it?
Since Linda’s song became a 1939 hit in South Africa for him and his group, the Evening Birds – selling about 100,000 copies under the title Mbube (Zulu for lion) – at least 150 artists around the world have recorded it. Pete Seeger, the man who claimed to have discovered it, took the song to No. 6 on the US charts in 1952 with his group the Weavers.
In his autobiography, Seeger says he first heard of the song from American musicologist Alan Lomax. He transcribed it note for note from an African recording and renamed it Wimoweh after misunderstanding the sound of the word uyiMbube (meaning he is a lion). Seeger then credited himself and the other three group members (under pseudonym Paul Campbell) as composers of the song, for which they have received publisher royalties.
The song has earned more than $15 million, largely because of its use in The Lion King movies, but the Linda family has received just $15,000.
All Linda received on selling his copyright to Gallo Studios in South Africa, according to LaFraniere, was 10 shillings – about $A1.20 – at present values.
It is ironic that, of all the musicians who have profited from Linda’s song, the original offender of this breach of copyright was in fact one of the heroes of the protest movement who was famous for singing about hammering out injustice all over this world.
In the 2002 documentary A Lion’s Trail aired by the US Public Broadcasting Service, Seeger said: “The big mistake I made was not making sure that my publisher signed a regular songwriter’s contract with Linda.” But why would he need to, Seeger always having claimed to have written the song with his group?
Seeger continued in the documentary: “My publisher simply sent Linda some money and copyrighted the Weavers arrangement here and sent the Weavers some money.”
The first of these statements was not true. In 2004, the Weavers’ publisher, TRO/Folkways, admitted it had not paid Linda any royalties and promised to give $3000 a year to the Linda family and finance a memorial to Linda.
Too little too late? In 2001 Linda’s daughter Adelaide died of AIDS at 38, unable to afford lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment, according to LaFraniere.
Emma Macdonald is a Tasmania-based writer.