The story of Soloman Linda and Wimoweh
January 10, 2003 3:27 PM   Subscribe

The story of 'Wimoweh' 'Mbube' or more popularly 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'. In which a Zulu migrante creates one of the most recorded songs of the twentieth century, but because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, failed to get any royalties and died a pauper. A contribution to the music copyright debate.
posted by feelinglistless (14 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I read this article a while ago -- it's excellent. It was included in the Best American Magazine Writing of 2001 -- which itself is a fascinating collection of stories; everything from a pitch-perfect (ha, wow, unintentional pun) profile of Ron Popeil to a harrowing account of the Worcester fire. Good stuff.

posted by damn yankee at 4:33 PM on January 10, 2003

Sheesh, white people ripping off black people to make millions in music. Thank goodness that hasn't happened before.
posted by stevefromsparks at 4:48 PM on January 10, 2003

my favorite occurance of this tune was on the old tracy ullman show - the one that spawned the simpsons and so much more. best i can do from memory: buncha depressed looking people waiting for the bus. one small, plain man amongst them starts quietly chanting 'wimoweh'. others soon chime in with different parts. soon, the entire group is singing at the top of thier lungs and dancing joyously. the bus comes. the bus leaves. the only one left at the corner is the little guy who started the chant. he smiles, and heads for the next bus stop.
posted by quonsar at 5:26 PM on January 10, 2003 [1 favorite]

I love this story. I read it in Rolling Stone a few years back, and always meant to clip it but I lost the magazine. Thank you.

I'm doing a little personal research on the life of another song, "Stagger Lee" and the stories and permutations that go along with it.

I think it's fascinating how a song can resonate with audiences for over a century. How a song like "Pressure Drop" by Toots and the Maytals, which features very few discernable lyrics, can be so powerful as to spawn dozens of covers from acts like the Clash and Robert Palmer.
posted by perplexed at 5:32 PM on January 10, 2003

The word 'traditional', when used by a publisher [to credit a songwriter], usually means that somebody is keeping some money that should have been sent somewhere else. -- Pete Seeger

That same article looks at the ruckus the RS article caused, and some of the aftermath, and points out that Seeger has "tried to do the right thing". From 10/01, an update on the lawsuit from the family's point of view. More recently, 10/02, there appears to be a settlement in process between the parties -- or at least, the defendants have constituted a compensation committee. A fluff piece on Gallo Entertainment and its place in South African culture gives more context.

quonsar: although I just barely recall that particular sketch, no doubt the "small man" was Dan Castalleneta
posted by dhartung at 5:37 PM on January 10, 2003

(page 1) Japanese teenagers know it as TK.

(page 3) That very year, a new recording by name tk rose to the top of the Japanese hit parade.

Interesting. Is this text maybe an earlier draft of the article? Does anyone have the Rolling Stone version on hand? I'd be curious to know what, if anything, is different...
posted by staggernation at 5:55 PM on January 10, 2003

Oddly enough I was goofing around on the keyboard*yesterday, and started singing the darned thing. Haven't heard it in years. Haven't thought of it in ages.

*piano not computer
posted by konolia at 8:21 PM on January 10, 2003

Cool story. It probably does make a good contribution to the music copyright debate, but I'm not sure what exactly, other than saying "copyright in the music industry is really fucked up."
posted by sfenders at 9:58 PM on January 10, 2003

I find mysef with too much to say and I think I need my own blog. However, here all I'll say is this: I was amused by the name 'The Tokens' before, but now it's got a whole new dimension to it with all kinds of conveinent hooks to hang irony, tragedy and injustice on.
posted by wobh at 10:05 PM on January 10, 2003

Am I the only one who suspects that the people who are outraged by the RIAA suing Napstar are the same people who are outraged that this guy didn't get any royalties?
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:19 PM on January 10, 2003

perplexed: If you haven't already, you'll want to look at Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, which has a chapter "Sly Stone: The Myth of Staggerlee" and associated discographical appendix that reveals the history behind the song and discusses "the most memorable recordings" of the song he was able to turn up, finishing with the Clash. (The book ends with a transcript of an amazing theological discussion between an agitated Jerry Lee Lewis and a soothing Sam Philips, trying to convince The Killer that he can cut a rock-n-roll record without endangering his immortal soul; it seems to be online here, but you may have to change the url from 7a to 7b, 7c, and so on to read successive bits if it doesn't switch by itself. It's one of the funniest things I've ever read.)

feelinglistless: Great link! I cut out the RS story and have it in a box somewhere, but it's good to know it's online.
posted by languagehat at 11:50 AM on January 11, 2003

(page 1) Japanese teenagers know it as TK. . . Interesting. Is this text maybe an earlier draft of the article?

staggernation: maybe you already know that TK is what editors write on article galleys sent back to the author. It stands for "To Come," meaning that more information will be coming along shortly.

I once asked an editor, who had TKed one of my magazine articles in a few places, why everybody wrote TK instead of TC, and she said she had no idea.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:01 PM on January 11, 2003

Good lord. I was listening to The Weavers' version of "Wimoweh" earlier today and thinking about this. Here are Pete Seeger's notes on the song from the grandly-titled tribute "Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger."

I was in bed with a bad cold in 1949 when Alan Lomax brought me some South African records. I listened to them over and over, transcribing the words as best I could. I found a song that had only a single word and I taught that song to the Weavers. The word meant, "the lion is sleeping." A few years later I read a book about South African churches that mentioned the large native church called "Zulu Chaka Church." Chaka, known as the lion, was the last great king of the Zulus one hundred and fifty years ago. When Chaka died, the legend arose that the lion was not dead; he was only sleeping and would someday wake up. It is easy to see that this is a song of hope sung by oppressed people (despite commercial censorship). If people sing it, I hope they do not sing it the way the American pop record had it: "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight," as this trivializes a song of great historical importance. There is no jungle around Johannesburg (where this song originated) and never was.

Thanks for the tip on the "Myth of Stagger Lee" chapter, languagehat. And perplexed, I hope your research goes well--I know Leadbelly's version, and it always seemed like something that would bear looking into.
posted by hippugeek at 12:23 AM on January 12, 2003

Off-topic, and the traffic on this thread may have hit its peak long ago, but...

I once asked an editor, who had TKed one of my magazine articles in a few places, why everybody wrote TK instead of TC, and she said she had no idea.

My understanding was it was too avoid confusion with the abbreviation for Table of Contents.
posted by turaho at 1:01 PM on January 13, 2003

« Older Flying Snake Movies   |   even his elbow joint was worn smooth and flat Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments