“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is about Shaka The Lion, a warrior king of the Zulus who resisted the armies of European colonizers. The song claims that he is not dead, only sleeping, and he will one day return to lead his oppressed people to freedom.
“Mbube” (Zulu: lion) was written in the 1920s by Solomon Linda, a South African singer of Zulu origin, who worked for the Gallo Record Company as a cleaner and record packer, and who performed with a choir, The Evening Birds, where, according to South African journalist Rian Malan:
“Mbube” wasn’t the most remarkable tune, but there was something terribly compelling about the underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which Solomon yodelled and howled for two exhilarating minutes, occasionally making it up as he went along. The third take was the great one, but it achieved immortality only in its dying seconds, when Solly [Solomon Linda] took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with these words:
In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.
Linda’s improvised melody was wordless; no English words occur in the recording. Issued by Gallo as a 78 recording in 1939 and marketed to black audiences, “Mbube” became a hit and Linda a star throughout South Africa. By 1948, the song had sold about 100,000 copies in Africa and among black South African immigrants in Great Britain and had lent its name to a style of African a cappella music that evolved into isicathamiya (also called mbube), popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
In 1949, Alan Lomax, then working as folk music director for Decca Records, brought Solomon Linda’s 78 recording to the attention of his friend Pete Seeger of the folk group The Weavers. In November 1951, after having performed the song for at least a year in their concerts, The Weavers recorded an adapted version with brass and string orchestra and chorus as a 78 single entitled “Wimoweh”, a mishearing of the original song’s chorus of “Uyimbube”, Zulu: You are a lion. Their version contained the chanting chorus “Wimoweh” and Linda’s improvised melodic line. It reached Billboard’s top ten and became a staple of The Weavers’ live repertoire. It achieved mass exposure (without orchestra) in their best-selling The Weavers at Carnegie Hall LP album, recorded in 1955 and issued in 1957, and was covered extensively by other folk revival groups, such as The Kingston Trio.
In the liner notes to one of his recordings, Seeger explained his interpretation of the song, which he believed to be traditional (although the song’s author Solomon Linda is a credited performer on the album), as an instance of a “sleeping-king” folk motif about Shaka, Warrior King of the Zulus, along the lines of the mythical European sleeping king in the mountain: Shaka the Lion, who heroically resisted the armies of the European colonizers, is supposed not to be dead but only sleeping and will one day awaken and return to lead his oppressed people to freedom. University of Texas folklorist, Veit Erlmann, however, argues that the song’s meaning is more literal and refers to an incident in Linda’s own youth when he actually killed a lion cub.
In 1961, two RCA producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, engaged Juilliard-trained musician and lyricist George David Weiss to fashion an arrangement for a planned new pop music cover of “Wimoweh”, intended as the B-side of a 45-rpm single called “Tina” by the teenage doo-wop group The Tokens. Weiss wrote English lyrics:
In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight…
Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, etc.
He also brought in the soprano voice of opera singer Anita Darian to vocalize (reprising Yma Sumac) before, during and after the saxophone solo, her eerie descant sounding almost like another instrument. The Tokens, who loved The Weavers’ version of the song and had used it to audition for Hugo and Luigi at RCA, were appalled and were initially reluctant to sing the new arrangement. But ultimately, they allowed themselves to be persuaded. Issued by RCA in 1961, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” rocketed to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The publishers of this recording, Abilene Music (owned by Weiss), listed one “Albert Stanton” (a pseudonym for Al Brackman, the business partner of Pete Seeger’s music publisher Howie Richmond), as one of the song’s writers (or arrangers), thus permitting TRO/Folkways a share of the author’s half of the royalty earnings. A cover of the Weavers’ version by Scots singer Karl Denver and his group likewise reached the charts in the United Kingdom in 1962. The song continued to be extremely popular and subsequent cover versions were more or less continuous.