3rd Ear Music gives a thorough background story on the litigation that has emerged around licensing and royalties for “Mbube,” known the world over as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” in Where does the lion sleep tonight?. Names like Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Tokens and many others figure in this tale
Internationally renowned SAfrican author Rian Malan has researched & written a remarkable expose for Rolling Stone magazine in the USA, on the murky side of music’s international mainstream. It’s about SAfrican singer-songwriter Soloman Linda – The man who recorded & composed Mbube (aka – The Lion Sleeps Tonight / Whimaway / In the Jungle, etc.).
[…] This one’s for Solomon Linda, then, a Zulu who wrote a melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that his widow couldn’t afford a stone for his grave. Let’s take it from the top, as they say in the trade.
[…] The third take almost collapsed at the outset as the unrehearsed musicians dithered and fished for the key, but once they started cooking, the song was glory bound. “Mbube” wasn’t the most remarkable tune, but there was something terribly compelling about the underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which Solomon yodelled and howled for two exhilarating minutes, occasionally making it up as he went along. The third take was the great one, but it achieved immortality only in its dying seconds, when Solly took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with these words: In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.
Griffiths Motsieloa must have realized he’d captured something special, because that chunk of bees wax was shipped all the way to England and shipped back in the form of ten-inch 78-rpm records, which went on sale just as Hitler invaded Poland. Marketing was tricky, because there was hardly any black radio in 1939, but the song went out on “the re-diffusion”, a land line that pumped music, news and “native affairs” propaganda into black neighbourhoods, and people began trickling into stores to ask for it. The trickle grew into a steady stream that just rolled on for years and years, necessitating so many re-pressings that the master disintegrated. By 1948, “Mbube” had sold in the region of 100,000 copies, and Solomon Linda was the undefeated and undefeatable champion of hostel singing competitions and a superstar in the world of Zulu migrants.
This part of the article has a terribly familiar ring:
After all, what was a folk song? Who owned it? It was just out there, like a wild horse or a tract of virgin land on an unconquered continent. Fortune awaited the man bold enough to fill out the necessary forms and name himself as the composer of some ancient tune like, say, ‘Greensleeves’. A certain Jessie Cavanaugh did exactly that in the early fifties, only it wasn’t really Jessie at all – it was Howie Richmond under an alias. This was a common practice on Tin Pan Alley at the time, and it wasn’t illegal or anything. The object was to claim writer royalties on new versions of old songs that belonged to no one. The aliases seem to have been a way to avoid potential embarrassment, just in case word got out that Howard S. Richmond was presenting himself as the author of a madrigal from Shakespeare’s day.
[…] Toward the end of 1951, these men found themselves contemplating the fateful 78 rpm record from Africa and wondering exactly what manner of beast it could be. The label said ‘Mbube’, by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, but it had never been copyrighted. Anything not copyrighted was a wild horse, strictly speaking, and wild horses in the Weavers’ repertoire were usually attributed to one Paul Campbell. The Weavers’ version of ‘Hush Little Baby’ was a Paul Campbell composition, for instance. The same was true of ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’, tunes the folkies had learned off Leadbelly at Village hoots and rewritten in their own style.
[…] This didn’t sit well with Seeger, who openly acknowledged Linda as the true author of ‘Wimoweh’ and felt he should get the money. Indeed, he’d been been hassling his publishers for months to find a way of paying the Zulu. ‘Originally they were going to send the royalties to Gallo’, Seeger recalls. ‘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.
Yahoo! News has this Reuters article today (the above CNN link is from July 2): A Flap Over ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’
South African lawyers are suing U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney Co for infringement of copyright on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the most popular song to emerge from Africa, the lawyers said on Friday.
If Disney loses, South African proceeds from its trademarks — including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck — could be seized by the courts, lawyers representing relatives of the song’s composer said.
The lilting song, initially called “Mbube,” earned an estimated $15 million in royalties since it was written by Zulu migrant worker Solomon Linda in 1939, and featured in Walt Disney’s “Lion King” movies.
However, Linda’s impoverished family have only received about $15,000, the lawyers said.
Disney executives in South Africa were not immediately available for comment.
Linda sold the worldwide copyright for “Mbube” to a local firm, but under British laws in effect at the time, those rights should have reverted to his heirs 25 years after his death in 1962, copyright lawyer Owen Dean said.
Disney’s background writeup on South African music
Denise Howell has some other links: Now I’ll Have It Stuck In My Head All Weekend (see this one, in particular)
A rather glorious PDF of the tale