[Note: I'm posting these excerpts from an article by Rian Milan on the origin's of "The Lion King" because I think it's a fascinating and well-written story of the music publishing business. The story appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 2001 and was reprinted in "The Best American Magazine Writing: 2001." The full article is several times longer than what is posted here. Some Seeger -- but no Seger -- references included.]

 

IN THE JUNGLE by Rian Milan

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a small miracle took place in the brain of a man named Solomon Linda. It was 1939, and he was standing in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in black Africa when it happened. He hadn't composed the melody or written it down or anything. He just opened his mouth and out it came, a haunting skein of fifteen notes that flowed down the wires and into a trembling stylus that cut tiny grooves into a spinning block of beeswax, which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a very big hit in that part of Africa.

Later, the song took flight and landed in America, where it mutated into a truly immortal pop epiphany that soared to the top of the charts here and then everywhere, again and again, returning every decade or so under different names and guises. Navajo Indians sing it at powwows. The French favor a version sung in Congolese. Phish perform it live. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as R.E.M. and Glen Campbell, Brian Eno and Chet Atkins, the Nylons and Muzak schlockmeister Bert Kaempfert. The New Zealand army band turned it into a march. England's 1986 World Cup soccer squad turned it into a joke. Hollywood put it in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It has logged nearly three centuries' worth of continuous radio airplay in the U.S. alone. It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows.

Its epic transcultural saga is also, in a way, the story of popular music, which limped, paleskinned and anemic, into the twentieth century but danced out the other side vastly invigorated by transfusions of ragtime and rap, jazz, blues and soul, all of whose bloodlines run back to Africa via slave ships and plantations and ghettos. It was in the nature of this transaction that black men gave more than they got and often ended up with nothing.

This one's for Solomon Linda, then, a Zulu who wrote a melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that his widow couldn't afford a stone for his grave. Let's take it from the top, as they say in the trade.

 

PART I: A STORY ABOUT MUSIC

This is an African Yarn, but it begins with an unlikely friendship between an aristocratic British imperialist and a world-famous American Negro. Sir Henry Brougham Loch is a rising star of the British Colonial Office. Orpheus McAdoo is leader of the celebrated Virginia Jubilee Singers, a combo that specializes in syncopated spirituals. They meet during McAdoo's triumphant tour of Australia in the 1880s, and when Sir Henry becomes governor of the Cape Colony a few years later, it occurs to him that Orpheus might find it interesting to visit. Next thing McAdoo and his troupe are on the road in South Africa, playing to slack-jawed crowds in dusty villages and mining towns.

This American music is a revelation to "civilized natives," hitherto forced to wear starched collars and sing horrible dirges under the direction of dour white missionaries. Mr. McAdoo is a stern old Bible thumper, to be sure, but there's a subversively rhythmic intensity in his music, a primordial stirring of funk and soul. The African brothers have never heard such a thing. The tour turns into a five-year epic. Wherever Orpheus goes, "jubilee" music outfits spring up in his wake; eventually, they penetrate even the loneliest outposts of civilization.

One such place is Gordon Memorial School, perched on the rim of a wild valley called Msinga, which ties in the Zulu heartland, about 300 miles southeast of Johannesburg. Among the half-naked herd boys who drift through the mission is a rangy kid named Solomon Linda, born 1909, who gets into the Orpheus-inspired syncopation thing and works rots of it into the Zulu songs he and his friends sing at weddings and feasts.

In the mid-Thirties they shake off the dust and cow shit and take the train to johannesburg, city of gold, where they move into the slums and become Kitchen boys and factory hands. Life is initially very perplexing. Solly keeps his eyes open and transmutes what he sees into songs that he and his homeboys perform a cappella on weekends. He has songs about work. songs about crime, songs about now banks rob you by giving you paper in exchange for real money, songs about how rudely the whites treat you when you go to get your pass stamped. People like the music. Solly and his friends develop a following. Within two years they turn themselves into a very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler nats and dandy, twotone shoes. They become Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, inventors of a music that will later become known as isicathamiya, arising from the warning cry "Cothoza, bafana" -- "Tread carefully, boys."

These were Zulus, you see, and their traditional dancing was punctuated by mighty foot stompings that, when done in unison, quite literally made the earth tremble. This was fine in the bush, but if you stomped the same way in town, you smashed wooden floors, cracked cement and sometimes broke your feet, so the whole dance had to be restrained and moderated. Cognoscenti will recall Ladysmith Black Mambazo's feline and curiously fastidious movements onstage. That's treading carefully.

In any event, there were legions of careful treaders in South Africa's cities, usually Zulu migrants whose Saturday nights were devoted to epic, beer-fueled bacchanalias known as "tea meetings." These were part fashion show and part heroic contest between rival a cappella gladiators, often with a stray white man pulled off the street to act as judge and a cow or goat as first prize. The local black bourgeoisie was mortified by these antics. Careful treaders were an embarrassment, widely decried for their "primitive" bawling and backward lyrics, which dwelled on such things as witchcraft, crime and using love potions to get girls. The groups had names like the Naughty Boys or the Boiling Waters, and when World War II broke out, some started calling themselves" 'mbombers," after the dive-bombing Stukas they'd seen on newsreels. 'Mbombers were by far the coolest and most dangerous black thing of their time.

Yes! Dangerous! Skeptics are referred to "Ngazula Emagumeni" (on Rounder CD 5025), an early Evening Birds track whose brain-rattling intensity thoroughly guts anyone who thinks of a cappella songs as smooth tunes for mellow people. The wild, rocking sound came from doubling the bass voices and pumping up their volume, an innovation that was largely Solomon's, along with the high style and the new dance moves. He was the Elvis Presley of his time and place, a shy, gangly thirty-year-old, so tall that he had to stoop as he passed through doorways. It's odd to imagine him singing soprano, but that was usually his gig in the group: He was the leader, the "controller," singing what Zulus called fasi pathi, a blood-curdling falsetto that a white man might render as first part.

The Evening Birds were spotted by a talent scout in 1938 and taken to an office building in downtown Jo'burg. There they saw the first recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa, shipped over from England by Eric Gallo, a jovial Italian who started in the music business by selling American hillbilly records to working-class Boers. Before long he bought his own recording machine and started churning out those Dust Bowl ditties in local languages, first Afrikaans, then Zulu, Xhosa and what have you. His ally in this experiment was Griffith Motsieloa, the country's first black producer, a slightly stiff and formal chap whose true interests were classical music and eisteddfods, in which polished African gentlemen entertained one another with speeches in highfalutin king's English. Motsieloa was appalled by the boss's cultural slumming, but what could he do? Gallo was determined to sell records to blacks. When Afro-hillbilly failed to catch on, they decided to take a chance on some isicathamiya.

Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds cut several songs under Motsieloa's direction, but the one we're interested in was called "Mbube," Zulu for "the lion," recorded at their second session, in 1939. It was a simple three-chord ditty with lyrics something along the lines of "Lion! Ha! You're a lion!" inspired by an incident in the Birds' collective Zulu boyhood when they chased lions that were stalking their fathers' cattle. The first take was a dud, as was the second. Exasperated, Motsieloa looked into the corridor, dragooned a pianist, guitarist and banjo player, and tried again.

The third take almost collapsed at the outset as the unrehearsed musicians dithered and fished for the key, but once they started cooking, the song was glory bound. "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 howled and scatted 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 took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with the words:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.

Griffith Motsieloa must have realized he'd captured something special, because that chunk of beeswax was shipped all the way to England and shipped back in the form of ten-inch 78-rpm records, which went on sale just as Hitler invaded Poland. Marketing was tricky, because there was hardly any black radio in 1939, but the song went out on "the re-diffusion," a land line that pumped music, news and "native affairs" propaganda into black neighborhoods, and people began trickling into stores to ask for it. The trickle grew into a steady stream that just rolled on for years and years, necessitating so many re-pressings that the master disintegrated. By 1948, "Mbube" had sold in the region of 100,000 copies, and Solomon Linda was the undefeated and undefeatable champion of hostel singing competitions and a superstar in the world of Zulu migrants.

Pete Seeger, on the other hand, was in a rather bad way. He was a banjo player living in a cold-water flat on MacDougal Street, in Greenwich Village, with a wife, two young children and no money. Scion of wealthy New York radicals, he'd dropped out of Harvard ten years earlier and hit the road with his banjo on his back, learning hardtimes songs for people in the Hoovervilles, lumber camps and coal mines of Depression America. In New York he joined a band with Woody Guthrie. They wore work shirts and jeans, and wrote folk songs that championed the downtrodden common man in his struggle against capitalist bloodsuckers. Woody had a slogan written on his guitar that read, "This machine kills fascists." Pete's banjo had a kinder, gentler variation: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." He was a proto-hippie, save that he didn't smoke reefer or even drink beer.

He was also a pacifist, at least until Hitler invaded Russia. Scenting a capitalist plot to destroy the brave Soviet socialist experiment, Pete and Woody turned gung-ho overnight and started writing anti-Nazi war songs, an episode that made them briefly famous. After that, it was into uniform and off to the front for Pete, where he played the banjo for bored GIs. Discharged in '45, he returned to New York and got a gig of sorts in the public-school system, teaching toddlers to warble the half-forgotten folk songs of their American heritage. It wasn't particularly glorious, the money was rotten, and on top of that, he was sick in bed with a bad cold.

There came a knock on the door, and, lo, there stood his friend Alan Lomax, later to be hailed as the father of world music. Alan and his dad, John, were already famous for their song-collecting forays into the parallel universe of rural black America, where they'd discovered giants like Muddy Waters and Lead Belly. Alan was working for Decca, where he'd just rescued a package of 78s sent from Africa by a local record company in the vain hope that someone might want to release them in America. They were about to be thrown away when Lomax intervened, thinking, "God, Pete's the man for these."

And here they were: ten shellac 78s, one of which said "Mbube" on its label. Pete put it on his old Victrola and sat back. He was fascinated -- there was a catchy chant and that wild, skirling falsetto was amazing.

"Golly," he said, "I can sing that." So he got out pen and paper and started transcribing the song, but he couldn't catch the words through all the hissing on the disc. The Zulus were chanting, "Uyimbube, uyimbube," but to Pete it sounded like awimboowee, or maybe awimoweh, so that's how he wrote it down. Later he taught "Wimoweh" to the rest of his band, the Weavers, and it became, he says, "just about my favorite song to sing for the next forty years."

This was no great achievement, given that the Weavers' late-Forties repertoire was full of dreck like "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Greensleeves." Old Pete won't admit it, but one senses that he was growing tired of cold-water flats and work shirts, and wanted a proper career, as befitting a thirtysomething father of two. He landed a job in TV, but someone fingered him as a dangerous radical, and he lost it before it even started. After that, according to his biographer David King Dunaway, he fell into a funk that ended only when his band landed a gig at the Village Vanguard. Apparently determined to make the best possible impression, Pete allowed his wife to outfit the Weavers in matching blue corduroy jackets -- a hitherto unimaginable concession to showbiz.

........

The story begins in 1939, when Solomon Linda was visited by angels in black Africa's only recording studio. At the time, Jo'burg was a hick mining town where music deals were concluded according to trading principles as old as Moses: Record companies bought recordings for whatever they thought the music might be worth in the marketplace; stars generally got several guineas for a session, unknowns got almost nothing. No one got royalties, and copyright was unknown. Solomon Linda didn't even get a contract. He walked out of that session with about one pound cash in his pocket, and the music thereafter belonged to the record company, which had no further obligations to anyone. When "Mbube" became a local hit, the loot went to Eric Gallo, the playboy who owned the company. All Solomon Linda got was a menial job at the boss's packing plant, where he worked for the rest of his days.

When "Mbube" took flight and turned into the Weavers' hit "Wimoweh," Gallo could have made a fortune if he had played his cards right. Instead, he struck a deal with Howie Richmond, trading "Mbube" to TRO in return for the dubious privilege of administering "Wimoweh" in such bush territories as South Africa and Rhodesia. Control of Solomon Linda's destiny thus passed into the hands of Howie and his faithful sidekick, one Al Brackman.

Howie and Al shared an apartment in the Thirties, when they were ambitious young go-getters on Tin Pan Alley. Howie was tall and handsome, Al was short and fat, but otherwise, they were blood brothers with a passion for night life and big-band jazz. Following World War II, Howie worked as a song promoter before deciding to become a publisher in his own right. He says he found a catchy old music-hall number, had a pal write new lyrics and placed the song with Guy Lombardo, who took it to Number Ten as "Hop Scotch Polka." Howie was on his way. Al joined up in 1949, and together they put a whole slew of novelty songs on the hit parade. Then they moved into the burgeoning folk-music sector, where big opportunities were opening up for sharp guys with a shrewd understanding of copyright.

After all, what was a folk song? Who owned it? It was just out there, like a wild horse or a tract of virgin land on an unconquered continent. Fortune awaited the man bold enough to fill out the necessary forms and name himself as the composer of a new interpretation of some ancient tune like, say, "Greensleeves." A certain Jessie Cavanaugh did exactly that in the early Fifties, only it wasn't really Jessie at all -- it was Howie Richmond under an alias. This was a common practice on Tin Pan Alley at the time, and it wasn't illegal or anything. The object was to claim writer's royalties on new versions of old songs that belonged to no one. The aliases may have been a way to avoid potential embarrassment, just in case word got out that Howard S. Richmond was presenting himself as the author of a madrigal from Shakespeare's day.

.....

As the song found its fans, money started rolling in. Every record sale triggered a mechanical royalty, every radio play counted as a performance -- which also required payment -- and there was always the hope that someone might take out a "sync license" to use the tune in a movie or a TV ad. Al, Howie and Kameron divided the standard publisher's fifty percent among themselves and distributed the other half to the writers -or in this case, the adapters: Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Solomon Linda was entitled to nothing.

This didn't sit well with Seeger, who openly acknowledged Solomon as the true author of "Wimoweh" and felt he should get the money. Indeed, Seeger had been hassling his publishers for months to find a way of paying the Zulu.

"Originally they were going to send the royalties to Gallo," Seeger recalled. "I said, 'Don't do that, because Linda won't get a penny.' "Anti-apartheid activists put Seeger in touch with a Johannesburg lawyer, who set forth into the forbidden townships to find Solomon Linda. Once contact was established, Seeger sent the Zulu a $1,000 check and instructed his publisher to do the same with all future payments.

He was still bragging about it fifty years later. "I never got author's royalties on 'Wimoweh,'" Seeger said. "Right from '51 or '52, I understood that the money was going to Linda. I assumed they were keeping the publisher's fifty percent and sending the rest."

Unfortunately, Solomon's family maintains that the money only arrived years later, and even then, it was nothing like the full writer's share Seeger was hoping to bestow. We'll revisit this conundrum in short order, but first, let's follow the further adventures of "Wimoweh," which fell into the hands of RCA producers Hugo and Luigi, by way of the Tokens, in the summer of 1961.

.....

The paperwork was finalized on December 18th, 1961, just as the song commenced its conquest of the world's hit parades. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was Number One in the States on Christmas Day and reached South Africa two months later, just in time to bring a wan smile to the face of a dying Solomon Linda. He'd been ailing since 1959, when he lost control of his bowels and collapsed onstage. Doctors diagnosed kidney disease, but his family suspected witchcraft.

If true, this would make Solomon a victim of his own success. Sure, he was nothing in the world of white men, but "Mbube" made him a legend in the Zulu subculture, and to be a legend among "the people of heaven" was a pretty fine destiny, in some respects. Strangers hailed him on the streets, bought him drinks in shebeens. He was in constant demand for personal appearances and earned enough to afford some sharp suits, a second bride and a windup gramophone for the kinfolk in mud huts back in Msinga.

A thousand bucks from Pete Seeger aside, most of his money came from those uproarious all-night song contests, which remain a vital Zulu social life to this day. Most weekends, Solly and the Evening Birds would hire a car and sally forth to do battle in distant towns, and they always came back victorious. Competitors tried everything, including potions, to make their voices hoarse and high like Solomon's, but nothing worked. The aging homeboys would take the stage and work themselves into such transports of ecstasy that tears streamed down Solly's face, at which point the audience would go wild and the Evening Birds would once again walk off with first prize -- sometimes a trophy, sometimes money, sometimes a cow that they slaughtered, roasted and shared with their fans as the sun came up. Blinded by the adulation, Solomon wasn't particularly perturbed when his song mutated into "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and raced to the top of the world's charts.

"He was happy," said his daughter Fildah. "He didn't know he was supposed to get something."

 

......

The arbitrators weren't very impressed, either -- they awarded "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" to Weiss and Co., with the agreed proviso that they send "ten percent of writers' performance royalties" to the family. The order came into effect on January 1st, 1992, just as the song set forth on a new cycle of popularity. That year, a new recording of the song hit the Japanese charts. Pow Wow's version made Number One in France, in 1993. Then someone at Disney wrote a cute little scene in which a cartoon wart hog and meerkat pranced together, singing, "In the jungle, the mighty jungle. ..." The song had been used in at least nine earlier movies, but The Lion King turned into a supernova. Every kid on the planet had to have the video and the vast array of nursery CDs that went with it. The Tokens' recording bounced back onto the U.S. charts, and Disney vocal arranger Lebo M's version (on The Lion King: Rhythm of the Pridelands) was the centerpiece of an album that went gold.

George Weiss could barely contain his glee. "The song leads a magical life," he told reporters. "It's been a hit eight or nine times but never like this. It's going wild!" The great composer came across as a diffident fellow, somewhat bemused by his enormous good fortune. "The way all this happened was destiny," he said. "It was mysterious, it was beautiful. I have to say God smiled at me."

I was hoping to talk to Weiss about God and Solomon Linda, but his lawyer said he was out of town and unavailable. On the other hand, he was visible in the New York Times' Sunday magazine last August, which ran a spread on his awesome retreat in rural New Jersey. I drove out to Oldwick and found the place -- an eighteenth-century farmhouse in a deer-filled glade, with a pool and a recording studio in the outbuildings -- but Weiss wasn't there. Maybe he was in Santa Fe, where he maintains a hacienda of sorts. Maybe he was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he and his wife were building a house on a bluff overlooking the sea. I gave up, returned to my hotel and wrote him a letter. Weiss faxed back almost immediately, saying he was "distressed" to hear that Solomon had been shabbily treated in the past. "As you can see," he continued, "none of that was our doing. While we had no legal obligation to Mr. Linda whatsoever, when we gained control of our song, we did what we thought was correct and equitable so that his family would share in the profits."

A nice gesture, to be sure, but what did "Lion" earn in the Nineties? A million dollars? Two? Three? Ten? And what trickled down to Soweto? Judging from the tattered scraps of paper in the daughters' possession, ten percent of the writer's performance royalties amounts to about $20,000 over the decade. Handwritten and unsigned, the notes appeared to be royalty statements, but there was no detailed breakdown of the song's overall earnings, and Weiss' business people declined to provide one, despite several requests.

Twenty grand was nice money in Soweto terms, but split several ways it changed little or nothing. Solomon Linda's house still had no ceiling, and it was like an oven under the African summer sun. Plaster flaked off the walls outside; toddlers squalled underfoot; three radios blared simultaneously. Fourteen people were living there, sleeping on floors for the most part, washing at an outdoor tap. Only Elizabeth was working, and when she moved out, most of the furniture went with her. Last time I visited, in January, the kitchen was barren save for six pots and a lone Formica table. Solomon's youngest daughter, Adelaide, lay swooning under greasy bedclothes, gravely ill from an infection she was too poor to have properly treated. A distant relative wandered around in an alcoholic stupor, waving a pair of garden shears and singing snatches of "Mbube." Elizabeth put her hands to her temples and said, "Really, we are not coping."

All the sisters were there: Fildah, with her sangoma's headdress swathed in a bright red scarf; Elizabeth and Delphi in their best clothes; Adelaide, swaying back and forth on a chair, dazed, sweat pouring down her gaunt cheekbones. I'd come to report back to them on my adventures in the mysterious overseas, bringing a pile of legal papers that I did my best to explain. I told them about Paul Campbell, the fictitious entity who seemed to have collected big money that might otherwise have come their way, and about Larry Richmond, who wept crocodile tears on their behalf in a legal proceeding that might have changed their destiny, if only they'd been aware of it. And, finally, I showed them the letter in which George Weiss assured me that the amounts his underlings were depositing into the bank account of their mother, "Mrs. Linda" (who had been dead and buried for a decade), were a "correct and equitable" share.

The daughters had never heard of any of these foreigners, but they had a shrewd idea of why all this had happened. "It's because our father didn't attend school," Elizabeth said. "He was just signing everything they said he must sign. Maybe he was signing many papers." Everyone sighed, and that was that.

 

PART IV: IN WHICH A MORAL IS CONSIDERED

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a Zulu man stepped up to a microphone and improvised a melody that earned many millions. That Solomon Linda got almost none of it was probably inevitable. He was a black man in whiteruled South Africa, but his American peers fared little better. Robert Johnson's contribution to the blues went largely unrewarded. Lead Belly lost half of his publishing to his white "patrons." DJ Alan Freed refused to play Chuck Betty's "Maybellene" until he was given a songwriter's cut. Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" was lifted from Willie Dixon. All musicians were minnows in the pop-music food chain, but blacks were most vulnerable, and Solomon Linda, an illiterate tribesman from a wild valley where lions roamed, was totally defenseless against sophisticated predators.

Which is not to say that he was cheated. On the contrary, all the deals were perfectly legal, drawn up by respectable men. No one forced him to sell "Mbube" to Eric Gallo for ten shillings, and if Gallo turned around and traded it at a profit, so what? It belonged to him. The good old boys of TRO were perfectly entitled to rename the song, adapt it as they pleased and allocate the royalties to nonexistent entities. After all, they were its sole and uncontested owners. Solomon was legally entitled to nothing. The fact that he got anything at all seemed to show that the bosses were not without conscience or pity.

So I sat clown and wrote long letters to George Weiss and Larry Richmond, distancing myself from pious moralists who might see them as sharks and even suggesting a line of reasoning they might take. "The only thing worse than exploitation," I mused, "is not being exploited at all." And then I enumerated all the good things old Solomon gained from making up the most famous melody that ever emerged from Africa: one pound cash, a big reputation, adulation and lionization; several cool suits, a windup gramophone, a check from Pete Seeger and a trickle of royalties that had spared his daughters from absolute penury. "All told," I concluded, "there is a case to be made against the idea that Solomon Linda was a victim of injustice."

I sat back and waited for someone to make it. I waited in vain. Months passed. Seasons changed. This article was completed and edited and about to go to press, but I was haunted by the thought that I'd missed something, so I sent a final appeal to the publishing honchos in America. And, lo, Howie Richmond got back to me, saying that he wanted to accept responsibility for some "gross errors." The blame for this "tragic situation," he continued, lay with a long-dead Gallo executive, who had never provided written proof that "Mbube" was Solomon's creation.

Beyond that, Howie insisted that TRO had paid "semiannual royalties" to Solomon "since the first commercial success of 'Wimoweh'" in 1951. But a document he provided to back his claim indicated that regular payments (aside from at least one, Pete Seeger's check, in the 1950s) commenced at least eleven years later. He said Pete Seeger never profited from his adaptation, then said that Seeger had indeed received a cut, but that it "may have been paid to nonprofit institutions" and/or passed on to Solomon's widow.

But what the hell, Howie's heart seemed to be in the right place. He wanted to fly me to California to work out a grand scheme of atonement. Then I received a call one morning from Solomon Linda's daughter Elizabeth, who said thugs had barged into her new house a few nights earlier, terrorized her family at gunpoint and looted her possessions. Her front door was still hanging off its hinges, and so she couldn't leave to check out a rumor she had heard from her bank. I investigated on her behalf and called back an hour later. "Money is pouring into your account from America," I said. "Nearly $15,000 in the last ten days." This was a fortune in local terms, an awesome mountain of cash. Elizabeth said nothing for a long time. I couldn't be sure, but I thought she was crying.

The windfall arose from use of "Wimoweh" in a U.S. TV commercial for a hotel. A big chunk of money had gone at first to Pete Seeger, who'd turned it back. It seemed he'd been receiving royalties on the song all along.

"I just found out," he tells me on the phone. "I didn't know."

Rian Malan is the author of "My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe and His Conscience" (Grove).