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Solomon Linda, "Wimoweh" & "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
(new: Dec. 27, 2006)

The sorry (but fascinating) story of the most popular African song in history.


In my 2006 CD picks, I included the Golden Afrique Vol 3 compilation. The 2-CD package opens with the 1939 recording of "Mbube" by Solomon Linda and his Original Evening Birds. The song eventually became by far the best-known and best-selling African song in history. It's no surprise that this success did not benefit the original composer and performer.

The long and tragic story of Linda was first revealed in 2000 by South African writer Rian Malan in a 3 part story in Rolling Stone. Malan's research suggested that the song to date has probably earned about $15 million in royalties. A few Americans made fortunes from the song originally conceived by the Zulu tribesman, who died penniless. Linda sold his rights for 10 shillings and a job in the packing plant of the record company owner.

The Rolling Stone article memorably described the song's birth:

The third take almost collapsed at the outset as the unrehearsed musicians dithered and fished for the key, but once they started cooking, the song was glory bound. "Mbube" wasn't the most remarkable tune, but there was something terribly compelling about the underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which Solomon yodelled and howled for two exhilarating minutes, occasionally making it up as he went along. The third take was the great one, but it achieved immortality only in its dying seconds, when Solly took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with these words:
"In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight."

In the more than 65 years since then, the song has gone through several  transformations, but it always contained the heart of Linda's original. Songwriting credits have been claimed by non-existent names, and by producers who had no hand in the creative process.

(Click thumbnail for large image of the original record. Photo from 3rd Ear Music).

Linda's original was a big hit in South Africa, and in the early 50's, Pete Seeger discovered it, mis-heard the lyrics, and transcribed the chorus as "Wimoweh". His version with the Weavers started as a hit, but was derailed in the Red Scare. (He and the Weavers had been denounced as Communists in the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee hearings).

Others continued to record Wimoweh. In the early 60's, a re-worked version with new lyrics was recorded as the "B" side of a single by the Brooklyn group, The Tokens. A few radio stations flipped the single, and the rest is history. Walt Disney Productions eventually took the new song to Broadway, and really big money began to roll in.

Occasionally, a few efforts were made to acknowledge and compensate the original writer. Some seemed legitimate (e.g., by Seeger); others may have been made to divert legal attention.

It wasn't until February of 2006, that a settlement was reached with Linda's heirs.


  • The Rolling Stone article (in three parts) that first revealed the story
  • A more concise version of the story here
  • This blog has full mp3 versions of Linda's original, "Wimoweh" by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and by Yma Sumac (a Peruvian-Hollywood singer), and the huge Tokens hit
  • A YouTube video of a much older Tokens group reliving their moment of glory