Saturday, March 9, 2019


Ever vigilant in my aim to extend my often anglocentric peccadilloes to a wider audience, I dare say The Men They Couldn't Hang may be an unknown quantity to many readers. Which is a pity. Indeed, they are probably also fairly niche on these shores, despite recently ratcheting up a 35th year of performing. Arising out of the short-lived UK cowpunk movement of the 80s, which also produced the Pogues in their earliest incarnation, as well as lesser known names as the Boothill Foot-Tappers. (I know, I can hear the yells from Distressed, Arkansas, chiding me for using the term cowpunk, a term that, a little later, became the term for a more aggressive and electric ragged country sound in the US,  a sort of americana before it was called americana, but, much as I like that too, we used it first and, hey, I'm writing. My guys were a little gentler and used a little more acousticity.)

Pulling tropes from folk music, country and punk, TMTCH always had a strong sense of history, and, hailing from the naval garrison town of Portsmouth, often this was maritime history, encompassing anything from smuggling to the Napoleonic wars. I was drawn in early, finding their rough hewn melodic jangle very much to my ears. A flurry of records appeared between 1984 and 1991, when they first threw in the towel. But no band ever really breaks up these days, do they? In 1996, buoyed by a few interim reunion, they officially reformed, or at least the dominant front line of singer/songwriters Paul Simmonds, Phil 'Swill' Odgers and Stefan Cush, backed by a varying line-up in the rhythm section of guitar, bass and drums, with, often, the additional services of Bobby Valentino, fiddler extraordinaire and Clark Gable lookalike. In the intervening 20 years they have kept up a credible presence, alternating full band tours with individual projects, albeit often with one or other of them tagging along. I have seen them twice, in about 1990 and then again last year. (Here's what I thought.)

So how about the song? And what of lions and unicorns? Actually, a timely moment to consider, 20 odd days ahead of the UK 'regaining' its sovereignty and bouncing out of europe. Or at least the EEC. At the time of writing, no deal yet forthcoming, it looks and feels as comforting as a poke in the eye. The lion and the unicorn are the heraldic emblems on the country's coat of arms. If the lion is a symbol of fierce steadfastness, the unicorn is a symbol of fantasy. I know which feels the more realistic.

How prophetic are these words, penned by Paul Simmonds in 1990, describing his then perception of the status of this nation. I would hate for history to become literally the only future.

'Welcome friends from overseas
I'm your guide I aim to please
I know what you want from me
Sights and smiles and history
I'll take you down to the Underground
Tha's where the spirit of the Blitz is found
Hear those sirens over your head?
See that platform, thats your bed

Who went mad, who drowned in drink?
Who's in a cage and who's extinct?
Who ended up in a uniform?
The Lion and The Unicorn

Here's the church there's the steeple
Open it up where are the people?
Thinking up ways to take your dough
By deal or scheme or unseen blow
Now out to the shires where the towns are quaint
We spruced them up with a coat of paint
That white paint don't cover up dirt
Bandages don't cover up hurt

I'll tell you tales of kings and sailors
Puritans, outlaws, thieves and traitors
Show you round the land we made
Whisper something we betrayed
So where's the hope, where's the reason?
Poisoned by the years of treason
Where's the justice where's the grace?
Disappeared without a trace'

Here is a live version.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Lion/Lamb: Mbube/The Lion Sleeps Tonight


On the one hand, trying to write about the history of this song seems to be biting off more than I want to chew, and yet, despite the popularity of the song, and the publicity about its twisted backstory, it may not be known to all of the readers of this blog.

If you are interested in more than this summary, check out this, or this, or this.

The song that we know now as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was originally written by Solomon Linda, an illiterate black man born in the Zulu lands in South Africa in 1909. He led an a capella band, the Evening Birds, and wrote a song for them called “Mbube,” which means lion in Zulu. It was inspired by Linda’s childhood work as a cattle herder, who had to protect the flock from hungry mbube.

The song, and its style, were so popular that its title became the name for the style. Its release in 1939 by Gallo Records was a success and the song became popular in Europe during the 1940s, ultimately selling over 100,000 copies, despite, you know, World War II, making it the first African record to reach that level of sales. The great ethnomusicologist Allan Lomax played a copy of Linda’s record for his buddy Pete Seeger in 1949. Mishearing the lyrics as “Wimoweh” (a not unreasonable position if you listen to it), ultimately Seeger arranged the song for the Weavers (and a full orchestra).

Linda, poor and likely unaware of the burgeoning popularity of his song, sold the rights for pennies to the studio (and also took a job at the company’s packing plant). And Seeger, who apparently believed the song to be a “traditional” song (note that the label of the 78 in the video above doesn’t credit a writer), credited his version of the song to "Traditional", with arrangement by "Paul Campbell,” a pseudonym that the Weavers used to get writing royalties, thus meaning that Linda (or the company he sold the rights to) got nothing.

“Wimoweh” became a big hit for the Weavers, and a part of their standard repertoire, including in a famous performance at Carnegie Hall. It also became a popular song for other folk groups to record, including the Kingston Trio (who credited the song to the fictional Campbell and the real Linda). South African singer Miriam Makeba recorded the song in 1960 as “Mbube,” and credited it to “J. Linda” (and she sang it at JFK’s birthday party, right before Marilyn Monroe’s more famous performance.)

The next year, George David Weiss was hired to arrange a pop version of “Wimoweh,” and he wrote the lyrics for what became known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which was released by the Tokens, and became a No. 1 hit. The song was credited to “Albert Stanton,” a pseudonym for Al Brackman, who was the partner of Howie Richmond, Pete Seeger’s music publisher. There have been hundreds of covers of the song, in all of its various guises, over the years--even by Brian Eno--and it has been used in movies and plays, most notably the productions and soundtracks of The Lion King.

In a just world, this money would have gone to Solomon Linda, or his descendants. Of course, this is music publishing, so you know that didn’t happen. It appears that Eric Gallo, who bought the rights to the song from Linda, had cut a (bad) deal with Richmond, exchanging the rights to the song for the right to administer it in South Africa and other small markets. Seeger eventually discovered that Linda was the original writer of the song, and wanted his share of the royalties to go to him. He entered into a contract with Linda for this purpose, and directed his publishers to keep sending Linda his share of any royalties. It appears, though, that this didn’t really happen. Seeger later pleaded ignorance, saying, “I didn’t realize what was going on, and I regret it. I have always left money up to other people. I was kind of stupid.” Not only that, but it appears that Linda and his heirs were basically shut out from royalties from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

In 1991, there was an arbitration among some of the rights holders to the songs, at the end of which, the Linda family is awarded 10% of writers’ performance royalties. So very little of the money generated from the song’s huge Lion King popularity made it to them, and they continued to live in poverty.

But, like the popularity of the song, the story wasn’t over. A South African writer, Rian Malan wrote an article in Rolling Stone, which is linked above, explaining in detail the sordid details summarized above. That article spawned an Emmy winning documentary, A Lion’s Trail. Which led to a lawsuit. That lawsuit, however, was not a sure thing—Linda had sold the rights to “Mbube,” and his wife and daughter each did the same. But Disney, the defendant, decided that it didn’t want the bad publicity, and settled the case, confidentially, as is common in such settlements, but which required them to pay certain royalties, both back and going forward, to the Linda family.

So, while justice was not really served, significant injustice was mitigate.