In the Jungle: The Story of "Mbube"

"Mbube" by Solomon Linda And The Evening Birds 1939

(YouTube link)

In 1939, Solomon Linda was a young Zulu herdsman and singer who had moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, to make his fortune. His singing group, the Evening Birds, recorded a song he made up on the spot called "Mbube." As was the custom at the time, he sold the song to the recording studio for about ten shillings. Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds played music locally for years and received some acclaim for the song's later worldwide success -but no money.

"Wimoweh" by The Weavers and the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra 1952

(YouTube link

Pete Seeger got a scratchy copy of the tune in 1949 and rewrote it as "Wimoweh," a song recorded by his band The Weavers in 1952 and in 1955. Seeger thought the original tune was a folk song, with no original author. The Tokens recorded the song as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in 1961, which became the biggest hit version of the song so far (there have been many other cover versions). Meanwhile, Solomon Linda died in South Africa in poverty in 1962. His wife and six children could not afford a headstone for his grave for many years afterward.

"Wimoweh" by The Weavers 1955

(YouTube link

When Seeger learned of Solomon Linda, he arranged for his songwriting royalties to go to Linda's family. However, Seeger simply sent checks as he received the money, and after the funds were filtered through a charitable trust and a South African lawyer who did not keep records, the Linda family only received small pittances every so often. Meanwhile, the success of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" kicked off a dramatic battle between various rights holders of the original tune -none of whom had creative input, but as the various rights to the song had been sold and resold, everyone wanted a piece of the action.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens 1961

(YouTube link)

In 1994, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was included in the movie The Lion King, which resulted in $15 million more in sales. Then in 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a story for Rolling Stone magazine that recounted the story of "Mbube," and how Solomon Linda never saw any profits from his creation. The article led to a documentary and then a lawsuit, in which the song's copyright was reverted to Linda's heirs. Only then did Linda's family begin to receive regular proceeds from the song their father wrote over 60 years earlier. You can read the article in its entirety, with a 2003 update, at Longform. -via Metafilter


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No. In this case, it took 40 years, a public outcry, and many people working to fix it. Everyone involved in this story made a lot of money except the one guy who created the song, but his family finally got something.
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So when someone sells a song they don't really sell it - they can get the rights back if it makes money ? does that work for inventions and products too ?
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Wow! I'd only really heard the more recent versions (the Tokens is the one I think of when I hear the song) hearing all the earlier versions and the Ladysmith version it's like a whole different song. I'd always thought it was a comedy song.
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