When I was around 14 years old, casting around for new things to listen to, I found The Nylons 1984 album Seamless in my dad’s record collection. I loved the whole album right away, but I especially loved The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The strange tightrope it walks between haunting and soothing, the melodic howling, the fairytale feel, the plotlessness, the seemingly-nonsense chorus—these things really drew me in. I can’t say for sure that this was the first time I’d heard the song, but it was certainly the first time I’d listened to it. At the time I was so curious how this song came to be, what it was about.

Credit: Brian Gordon

Credit: Brian Gordon

I don’t think younger people can ever really understand this, but of course in the late 80s, we could not satisfy our curiosity about things with a tap on a screen. Tumbling down the Wikipedia hole would not become a thing for 20 more years. So while I was enthralled by this song, I didn’t really know anything about it. I suppose I could have scoured our little hometown library for something, but even if the right book had been housed there (doubtful)—the idea never crossed my mind. So, like so many brief passions throughout my life, I moved on without satisfying my curiosity.

We forget all about these things and then, years later, something triggers the memory, and we realize we now have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. In this case it was a brief mention of the song in the book But Will You Love Me Tomorrow. I probably thought The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a folksong with a foggy history, attributed to the prolific Unknown. It turns out the origin is well known, and fascinating. It’s a story of transnational folk styles, cultural appropriation, genre-bending, and musical exchange and evolution.

Best of all, since the evolution of the song tracks with modern recorded music history, we can literally hear as the song we know develops over 30 years, passing voice to voice, right before our ears.

1939. The song originates with a South African musician named Solomon Linda. His 1939 improvisational recording Mbube (Zulu for “Lion”) was a hit in South Africa. While this is not The Lion Sleeps Tonight that we know, it is clearly in there. This is apparent throughout, but especially at around the 2:20 mark when we hear the clear germ of the famous melody in the improvised high part. LISTEN.

1949. Pete Seeger (something of a hero of mine) heard the song, and, just like I did, mis-attributed it as traditional. He riffed on it, as he does so well, giving us a 1949 American folk version clearly inspired by the original, and inching closer to the modern classic. He called his version Wimoweh and performed it with The Weavers. In this version we hear the main melody line more clearly, and repeated. And the nonsense phrase “A-wemoweh” is here. But we still have no sleeping lions. LISTEN.

(It’s an aside, but such a great example of the kind of person Pete Seeger was: when he learned the original was not a traditional song, but was actually an original composition, he sent Solomon Linda a check for $1,000 and directed all his future royalties to Linda. Alas, the rest of the American music industry was not so decent, and Linda’s estate didn’t receive its due until 2006, after suing Disney and the American music publisher who held the rights on paper.)

1961. The Lion Sleeps Tonight achieved its modern form in the 1961 recording by The Tokens, which hit #1 on the charts. This version has borrowed the “wimoweh” line and the melody, with added lyrics we all know by American songwriter George David Weiss. LISTEN.

From there it was covered many times, including my beloved version by The Nylons. The Wikipedia article on the song lists around 80 versions through the years, with everybody from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Chet Atkins and Yma Sumac to ‘N Sync and R.E.M. What a satisfying answer to my childhood curiosity.

I’ve been in a bit of a groove lately reading about badly behaved women. I have to admit I didn’t really know much about Madonna the person. I grew up in the 80s and 90s so of course I knew her music. Like a Virgin was released when I was nine years old, and I know I was familiar with Madonna at least by then. I know this because one day I asked my big sister, “What’s a virgin?” She scowled and asked me who told me that word. And when I said, “you know, like in that song” she softened, and came up with what, in hindsight, was a great answer to a nine-year-old. “Oh. A virgin is someone who’s new to something.” It would only be a few more years before I sorted out new to what exactly.

One thing I enjoy about biographies is that you almost can’t read one without sort of falling in love with the subject. This connects to something very deep and beautiful about humanity, this idea that we can’t help but love someone more the more we come to understand them. If only we didn’t need to study them first. If only we could have more faith in one another. More trust of one another. Anselm of Canterbury famously said credo ut intelligam, “I believe so that I may understand.” If only. But I’ve lost track of what I’m talking about. Madonna.

I grew up in Indiana to mostly liberal parents in the heart of conservative America, and in the thick of the AIDS crisis. Which is to say Madonna was, for the most part, a villain in the cultural mind of my surroundings. And I’m a bit of a prude, so her provocateur nature made me uncomfortable in my younger years. Only later in life did I come to admire her. I remember believing her film, Truth or Dare was some mysterious and dangerous thing. I watched it last week, and it is honestly tame, and very good. (I’m told at the time what made it so provocative was a quick scene of two men kissing, which was something most Americans had never seen in any form, let alone in a movie. How times change.)

At any rate, I’ve gained a new appreciation not just for the woman, but for her unapologetic provocation, and for her music too. She was determined, unrelenting, and challenging, and the world needed her. And to my taste, her most recent album, Madame X is a mad work of genius. I can’t get enough of it. And two weeks ago I’d somehow never heard any of it.

Norman Mailer called Madonna, “a pint-sized [Italian woman] with a heart built out of the cast-iron balls of a hundred peasant ancestors.” He also called her “the greatest living female artist” (and he meant “artist” not “music artist”). I came away from this thorough biography feeling like he may be on to something. I wasn’t clued into her music enough to realize how inventive she is. As I read, I listened. It really is remarkable how thoroughly she has re-invented her music time and again. And I think this is key to her longevity (that and a steadfast refusal to go gently…) A media big-whig put it this way:

She’s incapable of doing anything that’s not interesting. If she’s in a photograph, it’s interesting. If she sings a song, it’s interesting. Her videos—all interesting. Barry Diller, CEO of Fox

Most biographies end with a death, and in a sense this one did too. As her age finally catches up with her, it becomes clear she’ll never really perform again, at least not in the way that made her so special. It left me feeling a little sad. But more than anything, reading about her life made me respect her.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Extreme Occident on the album Madam X. It says it better than I can.

The thing that hurt the most

Was that I wasn’t lost

I wasn’t lost

No, I wasn’t lost

It was a different feeling

A mix of lucidity and craziness

But I wasn’t lost, believe me

I was right

A couple of months ago I had a lunch conversation with a co-worker that turned to books. After I mentioned how much I love Shūsaku Endō’s Silence and Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow he asked if I’d ever read The Name of the Rose. After reading about it, I’m a little ashamed to admit I’d never even heard of it. (My education is engineering and business so cut me some slack 😄.)

It sounded like something I would like, so I put it on my list, and I just finished it. I felt echos of one of my favorite novels, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian reverberating. Take this passage, spoken by William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose:

The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless. The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.

And this line from The Judge in Blood Meridian:

…the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

They are both dealing with the unknowable, and our need to know anyway. To William we construct useful but ultimately meaningless truths. To The Judge, we lay down our own truth at random. These seem to me to be the same thing, although the first is perhaps a little less cynical. Both deal with the process of discovery and its ultimate futility.

The title The Name of the Rose is interesting. It is referenced only in the last line of the novel:

Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

Which I’m told translates to:

The ancient rose remains by its name, naked names are all that we have.

This is a concept that has fascinated me for many years. It is touched on earlier in the novel when William says:

I have never doubted the truth of signs…they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs.

The idea here is that in some sense all we have are “signs” (which, I would argue, could also be thought of as names.) To us, names stand for things richly, and the association is so great the name takes on meaning as though it were the thing itself. And of course the thing (The Rose) doesn’t really exist. All we have is the name. In a sense, what we communicate is the “relation” among these names. And so I can’t help but conclude that the only way I can say anything at all is by mixing metaphors the origins of which are lost to me, and to my hearer. And yet we cary on reasonably well, even beautifully. Eco makes this process feel dangerous and fragile at the same time.