Monday, June 14, 2021

Honouring the song 5: who wrote or arranged the song?

I’ve written before that even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it.


The identity of that individual may have been lost over time, but to honour the song, you still have the responsibility to try to find out who it was.

This post is part of a series that began with How to honour the source of a song (and why it’s important) where I identified five areas that need to be investigated when honouring a song.

The first post looked at Where the song comes from.

The second considered What the song means.

The third was about Teaching or performing the song accurately.

The fourth asked What is the cultural and historical context of the song?

In this post, I’ll be looking in more detail at who wrote or arranged the song.

don’t ignore the songwriter

All too often, in the community choir world, traditional songs are assumed to be just “out there” to be used freely by anyone. The rise of the internet has made song sharing a lot easier. Unfortunately, songs are often shared without any attribution or mention of who might have written them.

There are many instances where supposed folk or traditional songs — especially those from cultures other than our own — have a named songwriter who is still alive or died within the last few decades. At the very least, you need to contact the songwriter (or their heirs or legal representatives) to ask permission before you teach, perform or arrange their song.

More importantly, many songwriters from other cultures are prey to a kind of “musical colonisation” where westerners effectively steal their work without any kind of recognition or payment. I give some examples below.

that “folk” song might be an arrangement

Even if it turns out that a song is really in the public domain (I.e. in the UK, the songwriter has been dead for at least 80 years or the author is “anon”), you need to make sure that the version you are using is the original and not a more recent arrangement. Public domain songs are often chosen by arrangers because they don’t need to ask anyone’s permission or make any payment.

Once an arrangement has been made, the arranger owns the copyright to it. You are free to teach, perform or arrange the original tune that’s in the public domain, but if you use somebody else’s arrangement, you need to ask their permission and usually pay a fee.

case studies

Here are some examples to illustrate a few of the issues I’ve outlined above.

Wimoweh (the lion sleeps tonight)

This song is well-known internationally and has been recorded many times: The lion sleeps tonight. It is perhaps best-known most recently as a song in Disney’s movie The lion king.

The song was originally written by South African musician Solomon Linda for his group The Evening Birds. The song was written in Zulu and called Mbube (Lion). English lyrics were later added by George David Weiss.

Linda sold the rights to Gallo Record Company for 10 shillings (less than US$2) soon after the recording of Mbube was made in 1939. However, it is alleged that, by British laws then in effect, those rights should have reverted to Linda's heirs 25 years after his death in 1962.

Despite the popularity and wide use of the song, Linda died impoverished in 1962 of kidney failure. It was not until 18 years later that a tombstone was constructed at his gravesite.

Many people in the west who covered the song initially believed it to be a traditional Zulu song. You can read more about the copyright issues involved here: Mbube: a lion’s tale.

How can I keep from singing?

How can I keep from singing is a popular song amongst community choirs. It was originally written as a Christian hymn by Robert Wadsworth Lowry sometime before 1868.

Pete Seeger recorded a version which meant that the song became well-known during the 1960s folk revival in the US. In 1957, he published it in his folk magazine Sing Out! and mistakenly credited it as a “traditional Quaker hymn”.

Seeger's version omits or modifies much of the Christian wording of the original, and adds a verse by Doris Plenn, a family friend. In the magazine Seeger didn’t copyright Plenn's verse, thus presenting the entire song as "public domain". It was published by Sanga Music in 1964.

Enya recorded Seeger’s version in 1991 and was sued by Sanga Music for copyright infringement. Even though the original song was in the public domain, the tweaks to the words by Seeger and the addition of Plenn’s verse meant that the lyrics were in copyright.

However, Plenn had only wanted the song to be preserved rather than seeking to make a profit from it, so the court decided that Enya could use the verse without paying royalties

Reindeer herding song

There is a song doing the rounds known as a Finnish reindeer herding song. it is presented as a traditional song. It’s also known as Ole Laya Loila (spellings vary). You can hear a version by the Chaps Choir on YouTube.

It turns out that this version is a slight modification of a song that Sian Croose had on an old cassette tape. She tweaked it very slightly so the song works as a round.

In fact, the song is a joik called Nieida (“girl”) and was written by a Sami women’s group called Angelit. It appears on their album The New Voice of the North. The song is in copyright and has nothing to do with reindeer!

Angelit can be contacted through their Facebook page if you’d like to use their song or learn more about it.


This is another song that is popular with many community choirs.

Kakilambe is a ritual dance from West Africa. There is contradictory information as to whether it is originated among the Baga people of Guinea or in Mali. It is also known in some other West African countries. The name is also used to refer to different African percussion rhythms.

The song appears to be in the Yoruba language and uses the overlapping of several different rhythms. It has been shared many times and was assumed to be a traditional song.

However, the version most commonly shared is actually an arrangement by Brian Tate which he bills as “Traditional Senegal”. The arrangement is dated 2005 which means that it is still in copyright.

I have been unable to track down any recordings of other versions of Kakilambe from West Africa. There is a video of the Kakilambe dance on YouTube which includes some phrases from Tate’s arrangement. It gives an idea of the feel of the ritual and dance.

You can also find Ms Kay from Bi-Okoto (a US-based African dance company) teaching Kakilambe in three videos on this webpage on the Skoolaid site (scroll down to bottom of page).

next post in the series

Next week I’ll wrap up this series of posts and point you in the direction of more resources to help you honour the song.



Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


Chris Rowbury




Monthly Music Roundup:


Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: