Longform.org put up a remarkable Rolling Stone article from 2000 by Rian Malan, “In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper.”
This is the story of the 1939 song “Mbube” by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, a Zulu group who recorded in Johannesburg. The sang in a workingman’s style called isicathamiya that derives from a warning: “Tread carefully, boys”: that is, don’t ruin the stage with your traditional stomp-dancing. (Malan points out that Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s light-footed stage movements descend from this style.)
A 78 RPM record of “Mbube” landed in the hands of Alan Lomax, who gave it to his friend Pete Seeger, who misunderstood the underlying chant of “Uyimbube” and called his version “Wimoweh,” which became a 1952 hit for the Weavers just when they wer forced to disband due to Red Scare allegations.
“Wimoweh” was covered many times by many singers, eventually including a Brooklyn group called the Tokens, who had heard that the lyrics were about hunting lions. The Tokens’ producers didn’t want to record “Wimoweh” as is, so they asked for help from an orchestrator named George Weiss, who deconstructed the song. He wrote some new words and put the melody front and center. The recording included a tympanist mimicking “jungle drums” and an opera singer named Anita Darien doing that soaring countermelody. It became one of the biggest hits of all time, and still shows up in movies, cover versions, children’s records, TV shows, and more, all around the world.
And that’s just the first half of this article. Malan’s real goal is to follow the money from this megahit and figure out how much of it ever made it back to Linda’s impoverished family, which brings us to ideas about folk songs and copyright, public domain songs credited to fictitious songwriters (“Wimoweh” is credited to “Paul Campbell,” who also “wrote” “Rock Island Line” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”), and the wheeling-dealings of some real music-industry sharks. Eventually everyone gets into court on two continents, but all in all it’s an eye-opening account of the story behind a song that refuses to go to sleep.