This column originally appeared in The Toledo Free Press on March 15, 2006.
One day in 1939, a tall, sharp-dressed Zulu man named Solomon Linda walked into Johannesburg’s only recording studio and improvised the most famous song to come out of Africa.
He called it “Mbube” (EEM-boo-beh), “Lion.” The world came to know it as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
The record made by Linda and his group The Evening Birds sold 100,000 copies in Africa during the 1940s. A disk reached Decca Records in New York, and was destined for the dumpster until a musicologist rescued it and brought it to struggling folk singer Pete Seeger, who turned it into “Wimoweh.” Recorded by Seeger’s group The Weavers, the song reached number six on the U.S. charts in 1952.
(The Weavers’ success was short-lived. On the eve of an appearance in Akron, Seeger was accused (correctly) of having been a communist and summoned before the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee. Citing the First Amendment, he refused to “name names,” was charged with contempt of Congress, and was sentenced to a year in prison. Though the sentence was overturned on appeal, he was blacklisted for years.)
In 1961, the Tokens added the lyrics “In the jungle, the mighty jungle…” to Linda’s tune and the song was number one for three weeks. Over the years, at least 150 other cover versions were made by everyone from Glenn Campbell to R.E.M., and the song was featured in Disney’s 1994 hit movie “The Lion King.”
But Solomon Linda had sold his rights back in 1939 – for ten shillings. He died in 1962 with $25 in the bank.
After his death, Linda’s widow and children lived in poverty in a Soweto shantytown, until his daughter, Elizabeth Gugu, saw “The Lion King” on television and resolved to reclaim her father’s legacy. After years of fruitless negotiations, in 2003 the case reached South African copyright lawyer Dr. Owen Dean, an expert in an obscure clause of the 1911 Imperial Copyright Act known as the “Dickens Provision.”
Victorian novelist Charles Dickens (“Oliver Twist,” “A Christmas Carol”) had signed publishing contracts that left his family with only a pittance in royalty payments after his death. His fans convinced the British Parliament to change the law so that all rights in a copyrighted work would revert to the creator’s heirs 25 after his or her death. This law was enacted throughout the British Empire – then-including South Africa – and it was still in effect when Solomon Linda made his recoding in 1939.
The result was that Elizabeth Gugu and her sisters were entitled to royalties dating back to 1987 – 25 years after their father’s death. But when Disney refused to settle, Dr. Dean played hardball: he took Mickey Mouse hostage.
A South African court allowed the plaintiffs to attach 240 Disney trademarks, including Mickey, Donald Duck, and the Disney name itself. If Disney lost the case, local revenue from these trademarks could be used to pay the judgment.
Solomon Linda’s heirs sued for the equivalent of $1.6 million. Last month, as the case was about to go to trial, the parties settled for an undisclosed amount.
And the lion sleeps better tonight.Copyright 2006 Lauri Donahue.