Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Saga of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was a must-play at the dances I attended as a teenager, and probably was at similar dances everywhere during the early 1960s after the infectious doo-wop song by The Tokens became a huge worldwide hit.

I knew that Pete Seeger had recorded a folk version of "The Lion" in the early 1950s called "Wimoweh," but did not know the song's amazing history until the New York Times ran a wonderful piece tracing its roots to Solomon Linda and the Original Evening Birds, who toiled in a squalid laborer's township in Johannesburg. (That's Linda at the left in the photo.)

Writes the Times' Sharon LaFraniere:

As Solomon Linda first recorded it in 1939, it was a tender melody, almost childish in its simplicity — three chords, a couple of words and some baritones chanting in the background.

But the saga of the song now known worldwide as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is anything but a lullaby. It is fraught with racism and exploitation and, in the end, 40-plus years after his death, brings a measure of justice.

You can read the story here.

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