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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Llewen Davis' signature line, "If it was never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song," has been banging around my head since the  clock radio told me Pete Seeger died, in part, at least, because Seeger gives us a bit of a metric for when a song becomes a folk song. Consider "Wimoweh":
[An]unacknowledged rewrite of the song "Mbube", written and recorded by South African musician and composer, Solomon Linda, in 1939. "Mbube" had been a major local hit for Linda and his band, The Evening Birds, reputedly selling 100,000 copies there, but its success at the time was entirely confined to South Africa. Some years later, a copy of Linda's recording reached the American musicologist Alan Lomax; he passed it on to his friend Pete Seeger, who fell in love with it, and it was Seeger who was mainly responsible for popularising the song in the West.
Seeger recorded a version of the song with his noted folk group The Weavers in 1952, retitling it "Wimoweh" (an inaccurate transliteration of the song's original Zulu refrain, "uyimbube"). The Weavers scored a US Top 20 hit with their studio version, and had further success with a live version of the song included on their influential 1957 live album, recorded at Carnegie Hall, which led to it being covered by The Kingston Trio in 1959.
The Weavers' Carnegie Hall version of "Wimoweh" became a favourite song of The Tokens—they used it as their audition piece when they were offered a contract with RCA Records—and this led to them recording it as their first RCA single. However, it was at this point that the lyrics were re-written by the band's producers—who took full credit for the song—and it would be several decades more before the full story of the appropriation of Solomon Linda's work became widely known. Sadly, by then Linda had long since died in poverty.
On the other hand, as Christgau notes, "[S]uch standards as "Good Night Irene," "Wimoweh," "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and the magnificent "Bells of Rhymney" are as much a part of the American songbook as "White Christmas" and "Summertime"--which latter, as it happens, Seeger anointed at Bowdoin in 1960, one of the thousands of solo shows he played during his 17-year blacklist." I think that's about right-- all folk music amounts to the music that remains popular over time. That may actually be the measure of authenticity. By that standard, "Seven Nation Army", for example, is on its way. "You'll Never Walk Alone" is already there. And even though the Weavers bowdlerized "Good Night Irene" it's a pretty sure bet they paid Hudie Ledbetter his royalties. And even though Pete held the copyright for "We Shall Overcome" by virtue of changing "Will" to "Shall", the royalties are donated to the We Shall Overcome Fund. Administered by the Highlander Research and Education Center,which supports cultural and educational endeavors in African American communities in the South.


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