Animal Music Monday: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
Posted by Richard Conniff on June 13, 2016
I probably first heard this song in the Kingston Trio version from 1959, because my older brother was a fan and their “.. from the Hungry I” album got played to ruin on the family’s monotone record player.
But the song dates from 20 years earlier, when a group called The Evening Birds stepped up to the microphones in a studio in Johannesburg and lead singer Solomon Linda, otherwise employed as a cleaner and packer for the record company, began to extemporize. His song, call “Mbube,” or “The Lion,” became a hit in southern Africa.
In 1952, Pete Seeger and The Weavers introduced the song to the West, largely intact, based on a copy of the 78 rpm recording brought to him by the great musicologist Alan Lomax. Seeger somehow misheard Linda’s “Mbube Uyimbube,” Zulu words meaning “the Lion, you are the lion” as “Wimoweh,” meaning absolutely nothing. But his heartfelt, soaring falsetto caught some of the loneliness, fear, and courage of a kid out guarding cattle from lions in the African bush.
That eventually led to the 1961 version by The Tokens, which added a rather perky I’ve-never-had-to-worry-about-a-lion-in-my-life beat to Linda’s haunting lead. That version also added words by lyricist George David Weiss, over Seeger’s “Wimoweh”: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, The lion sleeps tonight…” and “Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling…” Here’s that version of the song.
The song quickly became an international hit. Here’s how Rian Malan put it in a 2000 article for Rolling Stone:
By April 1962 the song was topping charts almost everywhere and heading for immortality. Miriam Makeba sang her version at JFK’s last birthday party, moments before Marilyn Monroe famously lisped, “Happy Birthday, Mister President.” Apollo astronauts listened to it on the takeoff pads at Cape Canaveral. It was covered by the Springfields, the Spinners, the Tremeloes and Glen Campbell. In 1972 it returned to the charts, at Number Three, in a version by Robert John. Brian Eno recorded it in 1975. In 1982 it was back at Number One in the U.K., this time performed by Tight Fit.
R.E.M. did it, as did the Nylons and They Might Be Giants. Manu Dibango did a twist version. Some Germans turned it into heavy metal. A sample cropped up on a rap epic titled “Mash up da Nation.” Disney used the song in The Lion King, and then it got into the smash-hit theatrical production of the same title, currently playing to packed houses in six cities around the world. It’s on the original Broadway cast recording, on dozens of kiddie CDs with cuddly lions on their covers and on an infinite variety of nostalgia compilations. It’s more than sixty years old, and still it’s everywhere.
Solomon Linda died in 1962, having received no credit or compensation for his work, and his wife was too poor even to give him a gravestone.