Mark Steyn has a fascinating and detailed history
of the old pop standard, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a tune that has reaped many millions for many people save for the song’s creator, a black South African named Solomon Linda who recorded it in Johannesburg in 1939. The song, “Mbube” (“The Lion”) was a hit but alas, Linda sold the rights to his publisher, Gallo Music, for the equivalent of 87 cents and aside from whatever one-time recording fee he received, that’s all the money he ever made on that ditty. He died in 1962 in Soweto after a grinding life of menial labor and poverty.
Okay, I can hear you yawning, it’s just another depressing story of a naive artist screwed out of his fortune by unscrupulous entrepreneurs . Well yes, you’re right, sad as it is, the tale is a common one. There is an interesting twist to this account, however, in that one of the villains happens to be the patron saint of semi-musical white socialists of a certain age: Pete Seeger. Styne writes:
“A few years after Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds made their hit record, it came to the notice of Pete Seeger, on the prowl for yet more authentic traditional vernacular folk music for the Weavers. He misheard “Mbube” and transcribed it as “Wimoweh”. That’s a great insight into the “authenticity” of the folk boom: the most famous Zulu word on the planet was invented by a New York socialist in 1951. Still, Seeger was chanting all the way to the bank . . .
“The child of wealthy New York radicals, Seeger has always been avowedly anti-capitalist. Yet his publisher had a deal with Gallo Music: they snaffled up the rights to “Mbube” cheap and in return sub-licensed to Gallo the South African and Rhodesian rights to “Wimoweh”. And Seeger knew Solomon Linda was the composer. He says now that back in the Fifties he instructed his publishers to give his royalties from the song to Linda, and he was shocked, shocked to discover decades later that they hadn’t in fact been doing so. But it never occurred to him, as an unworldly anti-capitalist, to check his royalty statements. It was, on his part, supposedly a sin of omission. Not everyone can plead the same accidental oversight. Having persuaded Linda to sign away his copyright, the relevant parties made sure to slide some forms in front of his illiterate widow in 1982 and his daughters some years later to make sure the appropriation paperwork was kept in order. “
Does anyone have any doubt had Solomon Linda been a rich and powerful Afrikaner rather than a poor black tribesman, Seeger would have been dutifully paying royalties up the wazoo? This is all of a piece for the left: Pay no attention to my wretched deeds, just my words. The reality is in the perception so if you sing “We Shall Overcome” loud and long enough you will be perceived as a friend of the negro by the correct people, your millionaire socialist comrades. Never mind if your posturing doesn’t fool the working Joe, he’s just benighted trailor trash and certainly not worthy of the slightest concern.
Leona Helmsley once said famously, “Only the little people pay taxes.” Pete Seeger seems to feel similarly about royalties, at least those owed to the little people.