Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Lion Sleeps

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight," recorded by the doo-wop group The Tokens in 1961, shot to number one on the pop charts immediately on its release. Part of the song's appeal was its uniqueness, and it certainly sounded completely different from any other American pop music of that or any other time.

Very few people were aware that the Tokens' hit was a cover, and that earlier versions had been done by the Kingston Trio, in 1959, and Pete Seeger's folk revival group The Weavers, in 1952. The Weavers' version had actually gone all the way to number six on the Billboard Top 100, but pop music fans tend to have short memories.

Virtually nobody was aware of the song's South African origins, even when, in 1994, it gained renewed popularity after Ladysmith Black Mambazo recorded it for Disney's animated feature "The Lion King," using its original title, "Mbube." The success of this latter-day version, which was incorporated in a live Broadway musical and a TV series, generated millions of dollars in revenue for Disney and a lawsuit by the dirt-poor descendents of the song's author, Solomon Linda, and the back story of "The Lion Sleeps" finally began to circulate.

Linda, at far left in the photo above, was born in 1909 in South Africa and wrote "Mbube" in the '20's. He was working as a cleaner and record packer for the Gallo Record Company in Roodepoort, South Africa in 1939 when he got the opportunity to record the tune with his vocal group, The Evening Birds. It was a hit in South Africa, selling over 100,000 copies, but Solomon Linda was paid only a small recording fee and sold the rights to the song to Gallo for a pittance. He enjoyed regional success as a singer and songwriter for some years thereafter, but died impoverished in 1962.

In about 1950 the American musicologist Alan Lomax discovered the recording and shared it with his friend Pete Seeger, whose subsequent concert and recorded versions were titled "Wimoweh," a mishearing of the song's Zulu refrain "Uyimbube" (You are a lion).

I became aware of the song's origins in the early 90's when I heard it on the CD "The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics; Vol. 4, 1925-48" on the Yazoo label. No American version that I'm aware of conveys the powerful and extremely African essence of the original, in which Linda used three bass singers in his back-up chorus.

If you want to learn more, see the excellent Wikipedia articles "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Solomon Linda."


Saturday, July 23, 2011

china is kicking our butts

China tested their new Beijing to Shanghai bullet train last month. They're griping about how much it cost them, but people everywhere and at all times gripe about the cost of things.

We could be building trains like this in this country, and there was a time not so long ago when we would have. Building infrastructure that looks to the future is an investment. One inter-city train project would put thousands of people to work.

Anyway, that's what the Chinese are doing. But we're too busy debating whether or not we should fail, and become a deadbeat to even recognize that there is something called the future.

The train is powered by electricity, and its 5 hour run to Shanghai takes about half as long as a conventional train.

I took a train from Portland to Seattle a few days ago, and it was great! Unlike flying, taking the train is actually fun.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

clock with sphinx, cards, miscellaneous

The mantel clock was manufactured in New York City by the Ansonia Clock Company, probably between 1879 and 1920. It was the kind of mass-produced "luxury" item available in the popular mail-order catalogs of the day, such as those distributed by Sears and Roebuck and the St. Louis Hardware Company.

It's a study in contrasts: the extraordinary late-Victorian ugliness of the clock body seems not to belong to the beautiful cast-iron figure of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry with her wax tablet and stylus.

The face of double-headed iron sphinx looks remarkably like that of a Czech gangster I knew in my youth, a hoodlum named Dennis. It was most likely the ornamental top piece for a now-departed large clock.

The Victorian composition is completed by the inclusion of "fortune-telling cards," popular at the time.

Photo and images on cards created by Dave b and © 2011 by Daveb, Horney, and Smeavey Productions.

Click for bigger.


Saturday, July 09, 2011


I always thought I didn't like rap at all, and I can still do without most of it. All the posing and gratuitous cussing are, well, adolescent bullshit, if you really wanna know.

I always thought it was mostly just the sound of it I didn't like, but either I was wrong or tastes change.

First I rediscovered the politico-socio-psychological work of Oaktown Mike Franti and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

And then, quite by accident, I stumbled across the Polish rapper Dongularesko and his sidekick Dj Kostek doing "5 Chinek."

What's a chinek? Is it currency? I have no idea what this guy is rapping in Polish about except when he says 'Bam bam bam," but I love the sound. It's that synth-loop melody that drives it, I think, a combination of Middle East and old-time carnival carousel.



Saturday, July 02, 2011

What it Is

A Very Short History of the US since the Turn of the Century

What it is, cats and kitties? The prelude to the new century, the pro-log as it were, was good old Bill and the good times. We knew it was too good to last. Besides everybody workin and makin money, there was the stuff that was just good plain fun, you know, spunk on a blue dress and all that really hilarious "We gotcha, you pervert!" shit that made everybody's Aunt Anna gasp and clutch at her pearls.

But then it was 2000, and Bill's curtain call where he said "Bye, y'all. I gotta go now. Last one to leave, turn out the lights."

Then came darkness followed by a hangover, then came Bush. And his merry band of mentally deranged palsied harlequin mummers, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Paul "Smellysox" Wolfowitz.

Under Bush, everything became dreadful. It was still a great country to live in, but only if you were the "right" kind of person.

So we spent the greater part of the first 10 years of the new century in a kind of mental and spiritual gulag, relieved only by occasional outbursts of catastrophe, such as first, 9/11, then the war(s), and finally the bubble bust and collapse. But now, something rather odd has happened.

So along comes (ta da) Mr. Wonderful, that nice young black guy who didn't even sound or act anything like Bill O'Reilly's stereotype of how a nice young black guy is supposed to sound or act. And he was all like, "Hopey," and "Changey," so a lot of people said, "Hey, why not? Things might get a little better, and I sure as hell don't see how they could get worse," so went to bed and to sleep.

Then we woke up to a new day, same old shit. End of story.

And the moral of the story is: Bad situations get worse when they remain the same because they start to look like forever.