He’s 87 now, but Pete Seeger remains as relevant as ever. The folk music icon enjoyed renewed visibility in 2006 as the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. He also influenced John Fogerty’s 2004 album title track/antiwar single “Déjà Vu (All Over Again),” which alluded to “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy,” Seeger’s Vietnam-era protest song that contributed to the cancellation of the legendary Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour when he sang it on the air in 1968. Then there’s “Little Boxes,” currently serving as the theme to Showtime’s hit series Weeds. Written by the heroic social and political activist Malvina Reynolds, the conformity-castigating ditty was Seeger’s only pop hit (#70 in 1964).
So there he was, venerable and viable as ever, at Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s recent concert at Carnegie Hall, joining in on the South African Zulu vocal group’s rendition of “Mbube.” Recorded in South Africa in 1939 by Solomon Linda’s Evening Birds, the song was a huge hit that not only spawned several regional covers but eventually made its way to Seeger, whose left-leaning, politically blackballed pioneering folk group the Weavers had a hit version of it in 1952 as “Wimoweh.”
There’s a remarkable story behind both Linda’s original song and the Weaver’s misinterpretation of it, which begat, of course, the Tokens’ enduring 1961 vocal masterpiece “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—not to mention the Disney movie and musical The Lion King.
Pronounced “EEM-boo-beh,” mbube means “lion.” But Linda’s original, notes Seeger, had the word “wi” in front of it.
“‘Wi’ means ‘sleeping,’” he says, softly. “‘Wi mbube, wi mbube,’ and the ‘b’ is so soft that it sounded like a ‘w’ so I called it ‘Wimoweh.’” He adds that he’s using the original song title now that he’s revising his autobiography/songbook Where Have All the Flowers Gone (titled after his classic antiwar song and 1962 hit for the Kingston Trio) for a new edition. But besides Seeger’s mistaken initial hearing—and the eventual transformation of “Wimoweh” into a pop standard—“Mbube” has been marked by the horrible financial injustice done to its composer and his descendants.
Linda had chased lions away from his family’s cattle as a boy. His song based on that experience, for which he was paid a paltry session fee and no composer royalties, proved so stylistically representative that the term “Mbube Music” came to describe all Zulu choral singing. Seeger, who found it in a batch of South African recordings sent to folklorist and musicological giant Alan Lomax, has expressed regret over not having his publisher sign a standard songwriters’ contract with Linda, and recounts how American pop songwriter George David Weiss (co-writer of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”) “wrote 10 words and [Tokens’ lead singer Jay Siegel] added five little notes—and on that basis they collected tens of millions of dollars.”
Linda, meanwhile, died with $25 to his name; only last February did his heirs settle with the current publishers of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for an undisclosed amount. (Seeger pointedly credited Linda when leading the Carnegie Hall sing-along of “Mbube.”)
But “Mbube” was hardly the only foreign song that Seeger helped popularize with America audiences. “Quite often it’s the words that fascinate me,” he notes, adding that he is examining in his Flowers book update “how a song changes a bit when it goes from one culture to another.”
The traditional folk song “Kumbaya” is another song from another culture with another fascinating story that Seeger helped expose. And like “Wimoweh,” “Kumbaya”—which is now believed to have originated with the former slaves living on the Sea Islands of South Carolina—has recently achieved renewed notoriety.
Recorded by folk artists including Seeger, the Weavers, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul &
We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert
Double-disc reissue of Seeger’s historic 1963 concert mixes traditional folk material with then-contemporary songs by Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Malvina Reynolds.
Abiyoyo (And Other Songs And Stories)
Smithsonian Folkways, 1967
A children’s favorite spanning generations.
Wasn't That A Time!
This four-disc box set covers the history of the folk quartet that Seeger co-founded in 1948.