The Lion Sleeps Tonight

I’ve always like the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and particularly the original recording by The Tokens. It was one of my first MP3 purchases. Since I have Wikipedia on my iPod, sometimes I will look up a song and find out about it (most songs don’t have articles, but some big ones do, “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones is one). Anyway, Wikipedia has a great article about “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, tracing the roots back to a South African Zulu who recorded a song called “Mbube” in 1939 (“mbube” is the Zulu word for lion). It had some local success and found its way around to different people interested in exotic folk music. The American folk singer Pete Seeger, of The Weavers, got hold of a copy of Mbube on 78 and started playing it at shows. Seeger took some creative license in naming the song “Wimoweh” (spelling “mbube” phonetically, which is pronounced “em boo beh”) and making a big band version of it in 1951, though that was probably just for the recording since The Weavers were a folk group and wouldn’t usually have an orchestra. Then in 1961, RCA modified the song that Seeger had popularized by adding English lyrics. This became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” performed by The Tokens. It became even more popular at that point. Then it was reintroduced as part of The Lion King in 1994. An article in Rolling Stone in 2000 traced the history of the song and then a documentary was made in 2004. This brought attention to some of the lapses in paying the Zulu guy who originally made the song (and had never made much money off of it since the record company kept all the royalties). Seeger said he thought it was a traditional folk song and therefore no royalties would be due.

Anyway, the neat thing about having all the history of a familiar song is that you can go on You Tube and hear the different versions:

4 thoughts on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight

  1. That was a fun rewind in history. I liked the original.

    The big orchestra on Seeger’s version didn’t fit in at all.

    I think Paul Simon, Jack White, and Chevy Chase need to collaborate on a back-to-the-roots version.

  2. The article points out that Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who appeared on Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1986, are also Zulu, singing that same style of music as Mbube. Their group was originally founded in 1960. I agree the big band orchestration doesn’t really fit.

  3. Gracias mi hermanos, el leon duerme esta noche, si! I enjoyed all 3 versions you provided. This was my 2nd favorite song right after “This is My Body”. I remember playing it over and over on Marcy Mcardle’s cassette player when we were 5 or 6. I get the feel of being in Africa with the Mbube version and a completely different feeling from the big band sound, but I like them all.

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