Seeger lends his name to song royalty reforms


When Pete Seeger was recording songs like “Wimoweh” with the Weavers folk quartet in the 1950s, he didn’t give much thought to the fact the people who originally created the music generally got nothing in return.

Now Seeger is lending his name to the Campaign for Public Domain Reform, an effort to create a system for part of the royalties from folk tunes to reach the corners of the world where the songs originated.

“When a song is in the public domain and you record it, it’s standard practice in the music industry to say ‘adapted and arranged by’ whoever sings it,” he said in a recent interview. “Why let the record company keep all the royalties? They didn’t write the song.”

In a performing career spanning more than six decades, Seeger wrote or co-wrote such anthems as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”


Seeger, who turned 85 last week, said he long ago turned over his share of the royalties from “Wimoweh” to Solomon Linda, the Zulu choral leader who first recorded the song as “Mbube” in 1939. But he said he was unhappy that Linda and his family received nothing after the song found new life as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” first as a chart-topping hit by the Tokens in 1961 and later in the hit movie and Broadway musical “The Lion King.”

But then, he said, he realized he was equally guilty for taking an old song called “Abiyoyo” from a book of African folk tunes. The song came from the Xhosa people of South Africa. “I’d been doing it for 50 years and never sent any money to anybody.”

To help set things right, his publisher is working out an arrangement to send half the royalties from the song to a nonprofit organization that funds scholarships for Xhosa children.