Tuesday, April 18, 2006

the lion can finally sleep tonight

somehow i missed or forgot this story from last month. solomon linda was a south african zulu who wrote a hit song called "mbube" that was eventually adapted into what we know as "the lion sleeps tonight", one of the most popular recorded songs of all time. he went on to become a legend of african music, but he died in 1962 of "a curable kidney disease" and his family continued to live on in poverty, blissfully unaware of the millions and millions of dollars that could have been theirs.

last month, linda's daughters finally won a lawsuit granting them 25% of past and future royalties (going back to 1987) for the mega-smash song, which amounts to somewhere between a shitload and a fuckload of money. not a bad deal, but it would have been better if they'd gotten it a few decades earlier. still, it's good money, especially since the song experienced its biggest surge in popularity after it appeared in the disney film the lion king (and in the many spinoff products, including the stage show).

as the nytimes explains, the suit might never have happened:

The Lindas say they knew no better. Ms. Nsele said she remembered hearing her father's tune on the radio as a teenager in the 1970's and recalled: "I asked my mother, 'Who are those people?' She said she didn't know. She was happy because the husband's song was playing. She didn't know she was supposed to get something."

Indeed, few people knew until Rian Malan, the South African author and songwriter, documented the inequity in 2000 in Rolling Stone magazine. In a telephone interview this month, Mr. Malan said he was stunned "by the degree to which everyone was relying on the Lindas never asking the question" of why they were paid so little.

Mr. Malan's article embarrassed several major players in the American music industry and brought both Mr. Friedrich and Mr. Dean to the family's defense.

i only found out about all this courtesy of this riddim method post by wayne, who explores the story musically with a mashup of four significant recordings of the song. but wayne also links to an online version of the rian malan rolling stone article. it's a bit long by internet standards but it's a fascinating retelling of how the song grew from an african 78 to the mega-hit it is today. the stuff about linda and his family, and their place in musical history is fascinating—african acapella music is now called "mbube music" in tribute to linda—but what most grabbed me was the portrait of bold producers who went about illicitly obtaining copyrights to old folk songs. here's a taste:

Howie and Al shared an apartment in the thirties, when they were ambitious young go-getters on Tin Pan Alley. Howie was tall and handsome, Al was short and fat, but otherwise, they were blood brothers, with shared passions for nightlife and big-band jazz. After World War II, Howie worked as a song promoter before deciding to become a publisher in his own right. He says he found a catchy old music-hall number, had a pal write new lyrics and placed the song with Guy Lombardo, who took it to Number Ten as 'Hop Scotch Polka'. Howie was on his way. Al joined up in 1949, and together they put a whole slew of novelty songs on the hit parade. Then they moved into the burgeoning folk-music sector, where big opportunities were opening up for sharp guys with a shrewd understanding of copyright.

After all, what was a folk song? Who owned it? It was just out there, like a wild horse or a tract of virgin land on an unconquered continent. Fortune awaited the man bold enough to fill out the necessary forms and name himself as the composer of some ancient tune like, say, 'Greensleeves'. A certain Jessie Cavanaugh did exactly that in the early fifties, only it wasn't really Jessie at all - it was Howie Richmond under an alias. This was a common practice on Tin Pan Alley at the time, and it wasn't illegal or anything. The object was to claim writer royalties on new versions of old songs that belonged to no one. The aliases seem to have been a way to avoid potential embarrassment, just in case word got out that Howard S. Richmond was presenting himself as the author of a madrigal from Shakespeare's day.

Much the same happened with 'Frankie & Johnny', the hoary old murder ballad, or 'Rovin' Kind', a ribald ditty from the clipper-ship era. There's no way Al Brackman could really have written such songs, so when he filed royalty claims with the performing rights society BMI, he attributed the compositions to Albert Stanton, a fictitious tunesmith who often worked closely with the imaginary Mr. Cavanaugh, penning such standards as 'John Henry' and 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore'. Cavanaugh even claimed credit for 'Battle Hymn of the Republic', a feat eclipsed only by a certain Harold Leventhal, who copyrighted an obscure whatnot that turned out to be India's national anthem.

highly recommended.

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