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I just finished recording all of the vocals for an upcoming Wii video game, and the song title will make some people snicker: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Ok, so it's not that funny to you. Honestly, it's perhaps only funny to a dozen or so people, if they even remember.

Allow me to take a little trip down memory lane, back over 20 years ago to the summer of 1990, in hopes of providing a little context.

To set the stage, as it were, imagine a world with no national a cappella community. No internet to speak of, no centralized place to find or buy a cappella CDs or sheet music. Only a couple of a cappella groups most people had heard of: The Persuasions, perhaps the Nylons or the Bobs, and Take 6 had recently released their debut album. No CASA, no ICCAs, and only one a cappella event in my area: the Harmony Sweepstakes, a loose, fun local a cappella show/competition founded and run by community chorus singer Lisa Murphy.

Of course the show was not supporting Lisa financially back then, so she had a day job working for the father of one of my good friends, which is how I first heard about it and met her. She knew I was a big fan of a cappella (which back then was... unusual), so she took me under her wing and invited this eager, pie-in-the-sky collegiate a cappella music director to be a judge. No doubt if people took it more seriously she'd have upset some people, but as a casual night of music in an outdoor amphitheater where the winner took home a couple hundred bucks (if that), no one seemed to care.

In my youthful exuberance I had recently announced to her that I was planning to make a career of a cappella, which she greeted with a smile and the equivalent of a pat on the head, which was the only reasonable, polite response. My high school choral director has since told me he likened it to having someone announce they want to make a career of tiddlywinks: create a tiddlywink community, have festivals, competitions, classes, and so on.

I'd created an a cappella group for the summer - the "Mach 5" - as a dry run for the pro group I wanted to start the following summer, and I had plans that fall to start sending a printed 8 page newsletter to college groups, full of road trip tales and the like, in hopes of unifying the college community. And I'd already begun to think about what needed to change for a cappella to grow.

One thing that bothered me was the incredible lack of variety in song choice, both at the Sweeps and at collegiate concerts. It was like groups sang the same twenty or so songs, all very similar. Choices ranged from the pre-arranged (like a Nylons song) to the "almost a cappella" (like a Crosby Stills and Nash song or the "Longest Time") to the... well, that's it.

Having trouble imagining this world? Example: Rex Solomon, a fan of a cappella who contacted groups to purchase their albums, giving him both the definitive list of collegiate albums and addresses (a huge help in the early days of CASA), put together a 90 minute mix tape of collegiate a cappella versions of only one song: "Only You" (their version of the Flying Pickets version of the Yaz original). He did so, and there were plenty more, so he filled another 60 minute tape. And they all sounded exactly the same, save for recording quality and the soloist's voice.

At concerts during the school year, I'd sit with my cohorts in the Bubs and watch other group's sets, and we made a game of seeing how quickly we could identify the next song. It was the very rare song that made it past the first measure. (I still play this song while listening to tracks for BOCA, but of course it's far more interesting now, since basically anything goes).

So, when judging the Sweeps I was taken with how little variety there was, and commented (to anyone who would listen to me) that this absolutely had to change. The most frequently performed song? "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", hands down. Back then, you could count on hearing it twice a night, perhaps three times. The audience ate it up, which made my grimaces even more humorous to the judges sitting around me: "how can a cappella ever be taken seriously if we're just replicating the same songs? Where's the creativity, where's the originality?!?"

Lisa used to snicker and ask me why I didn't like the song, to which I would always repeat "it's not the song!" but it became a joke through the early 90s at any concert, competition or new festival if a group launched into that signature "wee-eee-eee..." someone would shoot me a look a smile, awaiting my reaction.

Back then I would canvas groups to figure out what made them tick, and when asking about that song and others, I realized that almost every group was arranging these songs (including "The Lion Sleeps Tonight") themselves.

There was no place to get sheet music, and groups didn't have an easy way to get in touch with each other, so they had to laboriously create their own octavos. It's easier to transcribe and tweak a song than create something from scratch, but that took all of the director's creative energy. As a result, very few groups made it past that stage to a place where they could/would choose any song and start to develop their own sound, so to remedy this I created the Arrangement Trading Library as one of CASA's first programs, subsequently dug around to find a music editor and publishing company that would print copies of what then was just called "the CASA songbook." (Now titled "The Contemporary A Cappella Songbook volume 1) But I couldn't get the rights to "Lion" at first so we had to create a second volume... and so on.

Yes, as counterintuitive as that may seem, I realized the only way to get groups to stop singing the same songs was to make it easy for them all to sing the same songs. The contemporary a cappella canon, although it never had that name, became something that groups would start with but then move past as they didn't want to be singing the same songs as everyone else. It became easier to start a group, and easier to build a core repertoire to get gigs, and then subsequently easier to move to the next stage: developing a unique style and repertoire.

Now, none of this is meant in any way to denigrate the song itself. In fact, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is one of the most important songs in vocal music. Did you realize it was largely improvised? That it alone was responsible for the birth of the Mbube style of singing (think: Ladysmith Black Mambazo). The song has a long, sordid history, which you can read about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lion_Sleeps_Tonight

It is a truly fantastic song - especially the original version - and one hears it so infrequently that I have long since stopped tilting at that windmill. Moreover, nowadays it would be the rare Sweeps or ICCA judge that wouldn't detract points for singing such an obvious song in a competitive setting. Sing it on your CD and send it to RARB at your own peril. Originality is perhaps as important in our circles as preservation is within the Barbershop community. Groups continue to perform it at outdoor summer festivals and afterglows, and they should, but we don't hear the "classics" in every set and on every album any longer, which makes it far more enjoyable when you do happen to hear it.

One final note: There is a vestigial remanent of this tale in the House Jacks, as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is the one song we won't sing during requests, at least in its original form. When people request it, which happens infrequently, we tell them it's too easy and they need to choose a different musical style for it, which has resulted in versions ranging from death metal to Chinese opera.

OK, I lied, this is the actual final note: I just did a wiki search for tiddlywinks, and am somewhat shocked to find that someone actually did create a tiddkywinks league. Looks like Larry Kahn (US) is looking to unseat Matt Fayers (UK) in 2011. More importantly, it looks like they have their own songbook, with titles like "Squop, Squop, Squop Keep Right on Squopping" and "Take Me Out to the Winx Match":  http://www.tiddlywinks.org/pubs/natwa/songbook/natwa_songbook_feb_1976.html

I have to admit, I'm not sick of those songs.

Yet.

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Comments

Grandpa Deke, tell us another!

In all seriousness, since I'm just an A cappella newborn, I love hearing these stories and finding the roots of some of the most cherished notions that we celebrate and deride around the community.

And you do realize that you're now going to have to come up with some new ways to stylize "...Lion..." now, right? It will become your #1 requested song. And I've heard you do Chinese Opera...that was so April 2011.

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