The surprising history behind The Lion Sleeps Tonight

• ~500 words • 2 minute read

My mom sent me a link the other day to Jimmy Fallon and Billy Joel performing a two-man rendition of The Lion Sleeps tonight on the Tonight Show:

I thought it was enjoyable and reminded me what a nice, simple song it was. So I looked up the history. What I thought was pseudo-world music, faux-African pastiche from the very early 1960s demonstrating possibly dubious taste turned out to be much more interesting!


It turns out the origins of the song go all the way back to 1939 and that it was written by a South African Zulu musician named Solomon Linda. Originally the tune was called Mbube — Zulu for "lion" — and featured no words in English. In fact, the words and melodies on top of the familiar "wimoweh" background vocals were largely improvised. Per this wonderful writeup from Rolling Stone, it was during the third take that Solomon improvised the line In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.

It's unclear to me if that improvisation is captured here — presumably it is — but you can listen to the 1939 recording with Solomon Linda and the Evenings Birds:

Around 2:22 you hear him improvise a melody that sounds much more familiar to modern audiences.

This song became a hit in South Africa and found its way over to the United States around 1949 where it was noticed by Pete Seeger. He must've liked it because he adapted a version of the song for his group The Weavers and retitled it Wimoweh — a not unreasonable mishearing by American-English ears for what turns out to have been uyimbube ((Uyimbube! All this time! It's Zulu for "You are a lion" but wimoweh is just... beautiful nonsense.)). That version still lacks the words you're probably familiar with, but it's a wonderful marriage of the original melodies and an American folksy feeling.

I actually like this one quite a bit:

Remarkably there were about six versions of that song recorded before The Tokens recorded the one my mother and many generations most likely remember in 1961:

Sadly, Solomon died shortly after in 1962, having received little compensation beyond an initial check from Seeger. Years later the song's popularity would be resurrected yet again with The Lion King. As of 2006 Linda's heirs have reached a settlement with the distribution company that licensed the rights of the derived tunes to Disney.

What I thought was a slightly corny, throw-away tune turned out to have a much more interesting history! Right up my musically-leaning, liberal arts alley — the original melting-pot, world-fusion tune! Long, long, long  before Paul Simon's Graceland and the interesting and slightly-similar story ((If you love Graceland as I do you owe it to yourself to read this post and listen to the audio at Hectic City. In short, the author tracks down some of the music that may or may not have inspired Paul Simon's seminole album. It's become my favorite running music of all time.)) that goes with that.