Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Favorite Animal Songs: “The Unicorn” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

Original sleeve of single. Copyright RCA Records

Original sleeve of single. Copyright RCA Records

Recently I was telling someone about the song “The Unicorn” by the Irish Rovers, which they’d never heard, so I found it on YouTube for them. It occurred to me then that two of the songs I most enjoyed as a child was that one and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Definitely fitting for someone who loves animals as much as I. But I never knew all of the lyrics to either song until I found versions on YouTube which printed out the words while the song was playing in the background. In a way, the words didn’t matter then, as they served as musical comfort food.
Back in the 1960’s, when “The Unicorn”(words and music here) was first released, The Irish Rovers were a folk band, much like a Celtic variant of Peter, Paul and Mary. The song has a cheerful tone and upbeat tempo, though I now know there’s a sad bit at the end. It explains why there are no unicorns around today, via the Noah’s Ark story. The reference to “cats and rats” harks back to nursery rhymes and “humpty back camels” reminds us of Humpty Dumpty and the way we describe things as children. But the mention of chimpanzees is very much of it’s time, as Jane Goodall’s work with chimps startled popular culture in the mid-1960’s, after a National Geographic TV docmentary and her subsequent books. Before that, people had many misconceptions about chimps, if they thought of them at all, suddenly they were trendy.
The song’s image of frolicking unicorns is very different from the Medieval representation of them as religious metaphors. But wasn’t everything a religious metaphor in that era? Think of dragons, who suffered a similar fate. Perhaps it was because travelers brought back tales of exotic animals such as rhinos and elephants, which people culdn’t quite believe were true and spawned wildly inaccurate illustrations. It’s easy to see how mythical creatures fit in with this view of the world.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”(words and music here) has a more vague narrative. In fact, I think it’s more about safety than wild beasts. Each verse progresses from the “mighty jungle”, to “the peaceful village”, to the relationship. “Hush my darling, don’t fear my darling, the lion sleeps tonight…” It could be a lover, a family or a child being reassured that they are safe and secure from danger. The exotic themes and images bring to mind a grass hut in a small African village. This is emphasized by the chorus, which is transcribed in a variety of ways, depending on the source. Is it another language or made up sounds, such as Peter Gabriel adds to his songs? And musically, sometimes there are 3 things going at once, the main chorus, the background yodeling and the drums, a staccato timpani. Considering all that, it’s amazing that I find the song calming. The Tokens, a group I know nothing about, released the song in 1961 and it became a number one hit.
My family had both of these songs on vinyl 45 rpm singles, though in my early teens “The Unicorn” was stolen after I’d ill advisidly took it to school. After years of regret at it’s loss, I now have both songs on my iPod. In fact, via Itunes calculations, I was surprised to learn “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is what I’ve listened to more than any other song in my digital collection. Because sometimes, adults need some musical comfort food too.

“The Unicorn” performed by The Irish Rovers Decca 1968, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” performed by The Tokens RCA 1961

Jackie reviewed another song from the 1960’s which also evokes good memories, Petula Clark’s “Downtown”.

2 comments on “Favorite Animal Songs: “The Unicorn” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

  1. murasaki_1966
    October 14, 2013

    The Lion sleep tonight is one of my favourite songs. Look for the Muppet version on Youtube.

    The Lion Sleeps tonight has an interesting and checkered history that you need to know. At least Solomon Linda’s family are getting some royalities now.

  2. oncebubbles
    October 14, 2013

    Compound men / animals seem abundant in mythology of all civilizations and times. As something completely different from unicorns (save for the horny content!) this traditional ballad about a mythical selchie or seal, from the Orkneys is perhaps interesting and a beautiful song ans singer to boot

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2013 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: music and tagged , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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