Magpies Mix Tape: The Originals

In general, I like the spirit of an artist covering another artist’s song. At its best, it’s an act of reverence and admiration. Aside from the subgenre of snarky ironic covers, or covers made in the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better spirit, cover versions are a way for a musician to engage with a song they love, or even to consume it and make it their own. “I’ll eat you up I love you so.” Even a bad cover belted out at top volume can remind you of how much good music exists in the world. And a really good cover can make you hear new things in a song you love, or let you listen to it with fresh ears from a different perspective.

Covering and sampling are part of the long tradition of artists borrowing and stealing the work of others, taking it apart and putting it back together again in new and unexpected forms. In many musical cultures this is expected and admired, but sometimes the thievery is more sinister. Musical history is rife with stories of one artist finding success with a song created by someone who lived in poverty or obscurity.

Solomon Linda was a South African Zulu singer who worked as a cleaner and record packer for the Gallo Record Company. In his spare time, he made music with a group of friends in a band (beautifully) called The Evening Birds. They recorded a few songs at the Gallo Record Company, including a call-and-response-based song called Mbube. The song became a huge success, giving birth to a genre of music called Mbube, which became associated with migrant workers who traveled far from home to find work in the coal mines and factories, and who made music together to maintain a sense of community and identity, to hold on to a piece of their home.

Alan Lomax, the voracious collector of music, heard the song and sent it to his folk-singing friends The Weavers in New York City, who recorded their own version. Solomon Linda’s other-worldly improvisation became the well-known tune, and The Weavers misheard or misinterpreted the original language and came up with the nonsense phrase Wimoweh. “The Weavers credited the song as ‘Traditional,’ with arrangement by ‘Paul Campbell,’ later found to be a pseudonym used by the Weavers in order to claim royalties.” It’s believed the musicians were told they were recording a traditional song, though their attorneys and manager knew otherwise.

Solomon Linda and The Evening Birds

The song went on to feature in a Disney film, of course, and over the years it made a lot of people a lot of money. But not Solomon Linda or his Evening Birds.

Here is a list of the (close to) original version of songs you might know better from more popular versions that you might not have known were covers. I don’t know the stories of all the songs in this playlist. I’d like to hope most of them are heartfelt and admiring. I’m sure a few of these might not be the absolute earliest version of the song, as some of them are traditional and have likely been around longer than the equipment to record them. I do know that I love them all, and that many of them came as a wonderful surprise to me. See if you can guess the versions we’re familiar with today!

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