Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, April 16, 2006

I never thought much about “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” until a few years ago when I read this magisterial history by Rian Malan of “Wimoweh” a/k/a “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” a/k/a “Mbube”. The dramatic, sordid, surprising details are well worth reading in full. The quick-as-I-can version goes like this: South African singer Solomon Linda wrote and recorded the original, “Mbube,” in 1939; in the mid-‘50s the Weavers had a Top 10 hit with their cover, mis-titled “Wimoweh”; The Tokens had a huge hit in the early ‘60s with a loosely-adapted English-language version, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The latter two versions, especially the Tokens’, made tons of money, none of which went to Linda, the song’s original composer.

Two pieces of news, via wayne&wax:

First, Solomon Linda’s daughters have won the rights to a substantial chunk of the royalties, which have totaled several million dollars. Excellent news.

Second, wayne&wax pointed me to the Weavers’ version, which I’d been wanting to hear. Since reading Malan’s article I had tracked down Solomon Linda’s original, which is wonderful. As Malan points out, Linda sings the famous and lovely melody later adapted to “in the jungle the mighty jungle the lion sleeps tonight” only once, at the end of the record. Through the rest he dramatically bellows a much simpler, still wonderful, tune, which was familiar to me from Pete Seeger’s solo version, which I first heard 20 years or so ago when I bought his “Greatest Hits” (on Columbia).

I’d wanted to hear the Weavers’ version but hadn’t come across it. The Weavers had had Number One Hit Records before “Wimoweh,” which, contrary to their squeaky Puritan rep, feature brassy big band arrangements courtesy of ace Sinatra & Ella arranger Gordon Jenkins. “Wimoweh” was Number Six and climbing when HUAC called Seeger and a couple other Weavers before the Committee, thus immediately sinking the Weavers’ Top 40 career. (Check out the article in last week’s “New Yorker,” unavailable online, for an account of Seeger’s considerable guts in facing down HUAC; I hadn’t known the story.)

This page hosts 4 versions of Mbube/Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight, including the Tokens’, Linda’s tough original, the Weavers’ wonderful brassy version, and another I haven’t listened to yet. Seeger is the bridge between Solomon Linda & the Tokens: He mostly does Linda’s simpler shouting melody, but he does what became the Tokens’ main, sinuous melody twice, rather than once a la Linda. And Seeger & the Weavers & the big band sound fantastic.

Also of keen interest: This wonderful mashup of the four versions by wayne&wax.

Next up in my search: The original source of the lion’s rep as king of the forest or jungle. The lion is a savannah mammal. Doesn’t live in jungles. According to E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) “King of the Jungle” refers to the tiger. I wonder whether Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion’s speculations about what his reign would be like IF he were King of the Forest led to latterday confusion about the lion’s habitation..

In any case, the lion does, indeed, sleep tonight. Hush, my darling.

* * * *

In other, more personal, MP3 news, my dear friend Michael Barrish has posted a copy of the wedding present he brought when my beloved spouse and I married almost 5 years ago. Michael and another friend, Gary Meister, recorded the great Dave Clark Five song “Glad All Over”; I’ve always dug the Dave Clark Five; here is Michael and Gary’s wonderful present.
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