When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 6: Pete, money is coming in



by Jochen Markhorst

VI         Pete, money is coming in

Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin’ time
Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see ’em
Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb
Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory
When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese
Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece

According to The Guinness World Records, Bing Crosby’s 1942 “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time with an estimated 50 million units. Which probably is about right, but overly reliable such numbers, or record lists at all, are not. We have had hit lists only since the 1950s, and even from those you can only approximate how much a single or an album actually sells. After all, we do not have something like a Central Record Sales Office, where sales figures from all over the world are registered.

By extension, what the most covered songs in the world are is equally impossible to determine. Guinness World Records hoists “Yesterday” on the shield, claiming that more than 1,600 cover versions of it have been recorded, but Stacker can only find 512 and puts “Yesterday” at position 2 – Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” is at 1 with 516 covers.

But then again, according to Far Out, “Satisfaction” is #2, according to UK’s Independent, “Eleanor Rigby” is #1, the Washington Post seems to know that “Silent Night” is the most covered song of all time, and we could go on and on. Little consensus, all in all – we only agree at “most covered artist”: Dylan tops almost all lists.

The unreliability is demonstrated, among other omissions, by the absence of “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)”, which does not make the Top 50 anywhere, despite the fact that we are all pretty sure it has to be one of the biggest hits of the 20th century. Written and recorded in 1939 by Solomon Linda and his Evening Birds in Johannesburg in Zulu language as “Mbube”, the song first rocketed across the African continent.

The South African record boss of Gallo Records puts the single in a box of records he sends to Decca Records in New York, where it is noticed by Alan Lomax. Lomax brings the song to Pete Seeger’s attention, who transcribes it by ear and releases it with his Weavers as “Wimoweh” – and scores a big hit with it. The English lyrics then are written in 1961 by lyricist George David Weiss, The Tokens record their version with these English lyrics, becoming the world hit we all know and love. And of which there are hundreds of covers – from Glen Campbell and Arlo Guthrie to Jimmie Rodgers and Roger Whittaker, from James Last to Bert Kaempfert, from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Mory Kanté, and from R.E.M. to Brian Eno; “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” can be found in every corner of the record shop, and in 2000, journalist Rian Malan calculates in Rolling Stone that the song’s use in Disney’s The Lion King alone should be good for some $15 million.

Solomon Linda, as it then goes, barely sees a penny of that. Much to the chagrin of the autobiographer Pete Seeger:

“I distinctly remember being told, “Pete, money is coming in for ‘Wimoweh.’ Where should we send it? Gallo says send it to them.”
“Oh, don’t send it to them,” says I. “Solomon Linda will never get a penny of it.”
“Well, get his address. We’ll send it directly to him.” I didn’t bother to ask exactly what “it” was. Foolish me. A year later I’d located Linda and a check for about $1,000 was presented to him at a grand banquet in Johannesburg. I assumed this was the first of many such payments, and that a standard songwriter’s contract had been signed with Linda. Again, foolish me.”
(Pete Seeger – In His Own Words, 2012)

The Weavers – Wimoweh

The boatload of money ends up going to lyricist Weiss, Seeger recounts regretfully, because a judge in 1991 ruled that that was simply copyright law: “If you adapt and arrange an old song in the public domain, you get to keep all the royalties,” with the judge deciding that the original song is in the public domain – presumably because South Africa is not a signatory to U.S. copyright law.

Weiss apparently knew the approximate meaning of the original lyrics. Mbube means “lion”, and the chant that Pete Seeger heard as “wimoweh” is actually uyimbube – “you are a lion” in Zulu. Enough to inspire Weiss to

In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight

… which in turn will echo ten years later, in 1971, in Dylan’s impromptu in Manhattan’s Blue Rock Studio: Dodging lions and wastin’ time / Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle. Rather poignantly, that line from “Wimoweh” to these words in “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, as we hear Dylan copying Weiss’s zoological fake news – after all, lions don’t live in the jungle. The mighty king of the jungle, of course, is Tarzan, who never encounters a lion there. Should Tarzan swing on all the way to Asia, he’d encounter tigers at most, as Elvis communicates zoologically correctly;

I am the king of the jungle
They call me Tiger Man
I am the king of the jungle
They call me Tiger Man
If you cross my path
You take your own life in your hands

(Editor’s note: Jochen’s link for this song https://youtu.be/0pV_Q_eyfnQ is not working in the UK, so an alternative is provided below).

Dylan’s first introduction to the song will have been Pete Seeger and The Weavers’ phonetic version, on 1957’s The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, the live album including “Rock Island Line” and “Woody’s Rag/900 Miles” and “Goodnight, Irene” and all those other songs that will somehow trickle down into a Dylan song in the sixty years that follow. Still, The Tokens’ English-language world hit is inescapable, of course. As inescapable as The King’s ’68 come-back special, in which he performs his driven version of “Tiger Man”. Which makes Dylan’s train of thought on this winter day in New York all traceable with a high degree of probability: Italian impressions on the walk to the studio – “Going Back To Rome” – Colosseum – wild-animal fighting – “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – king of the jungle.

Slightly less reducible but still imaginable are the next stops on the train of thought. Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory could just be an autobiographical interlude – perhaps even a memory of his Rome visit in January ’63 and getting on the train there to visit girlfriend Suze in Perugia, two train hours away (who, however, is already back in New York by then). And the line When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese then might be triggered by Titus Livius’ old legend, about the geese of the Capitol, of the old citadel. The geese who, on the night of 2 August 387 B.C., warned of the invading Gauls with their snapping, waking up Marcus Manlius and thus saving Rome just in time.

Granted, not entirely conclusive, the latter; they were not wild geese, and the Capitol, while perched high on Capitoline Hill, is not really what you imagine a hilltop to be – but still within the bounds of artistic license that an on-call creating Dylan may allow himself, this Tuesday afternoon in March 1971.

Six weeks later, on 28 April 1971, he secures the copyrights. Under the title “Masterpiece”, the song is entirely in his name alone.

To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 7: I had a little refrigerator


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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