In the Jungle: Inside the Long, Hidden Genealogy of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’

Get Pocket – by Rian Malan, Rolling Stone

Introduction
Once upon a time, a long time ago, a small miracle took place in the brain of a man named Solomon Linda. It was 1939, and he was standing in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in black Africa when it happened. He hadn’t composed the melody or written it down or anything. He just opened his mouth and out it came, a haunting skein of fifteen notes that flowed down the wires and into a trembling stylus that cut tiny grooves into a spinning block of beeswax, which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a very big hit in that part of Africa. 

Later, the song took flight and landed in America, where it mutated into a truly immortal pop epiphany that soared to the top of the charts here and then everywhere, again and again, returning every decade or so under different names and guises. Navajo Indians sing it at powwows. Japanese teenagers know it as ライオンは寝ている. The French have a version sung in Congolese. Phish perform it live. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as R.E.M. and Glen Campbell, Brian Eno and Chet Atkins, the Nylons and Muzak schlockmeister Bert Kaempfert. The New Zealand army band turned it into a march. England’s 1986 World Cup soccer squad turned it into a joke. Hollywood put it in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It has logged nearly three decades of continuous radio airplay in the U.S. alone. It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows.

Its epic transcultural saga is also, in a way, the story of popular music, which limped pale-skinned and anemic into the twentieth century but danced out the other side vastly invigorated by transfusions of ragtime and rap, jazz, blues and soul, all of whose bloodlines run back to Africa via slave ships and plantations and ghettos. It was in the nature of this transaction that black men gave more than they got and often ended up with nothing. This one’s for Solomon Linda, then, a Zulu who wrote a melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that his widow couldn’t afford a stone for his grave. Let’s take it from the top, as they say in the trade.

Read it here: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/in-the-jungle-inside-the-long-hidden-genealogy-of-the-lion-sleeps-tonight

4 thoughts on “In the Jungle: Inside the Long, Hidden Genealogy of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’

  1. there is or was a documentary about this on netflix. based on the story in rolling stone. pretty good doc. the children and family saw some money after the fact but nothing even remotely resembling what the actual royalties would be…..but then again, most artists from before 1975 were screwed royally by the industry…..

  2. ‘This one’s for Solomon Linda, then, a Zulu who wrote a melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that his widow couldn’t afford a stone for his grave. Sorry I couldn’t get past this. It looks like another ‘white man is the demon’ story.

    My dad was white. We lived poor and he died poor. He was an inventor among other things. He invented a metal fastener while working for a medical supply company. I won’t bore anyone with the details but suffice it to say the company reaped the benefits of the product. When he hired on to the company there was no agreement to sign which would make all such inventions the property of the company which is pretty much standard practice today.

    As far as ‘a melody that earned untold millions for white men ‘ I think that should read ‘for jews’

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