I guess anyone who's been in earshot of a radio very often over the past fifty years has heard The Tokens' 1960 hit version of this song. I remember seeing its name on an American Bandstand Top 10 list before I actually heard it, and being intrigued by the title.
Some years later I learned that The Weavers, Pete Seeger's pop-folk group of the late '40s and '50s, had recorded it. It had some chart success and I think that's where The Tokens, or someone at their record company, heard it.
I had always assumed that the Weavers, or perhaps just Seeger, learned it from one of those field recordings that the folklorists of the early 20th century were always producing and discovering, the work of a collector who had gone into Africa for that purpose the way the Lomaxes had ventured into the American South. But it wasn't until last week, when I posted that Paul Simon/Ladysmith Black Mambazo tune, that Paul, in the comments, clued me in to its origin, via this very fascinating piece. The original recording--and it was a commercial product, not a folklorist's discovery--was made in South Africa, in 1939. Of course I had to hear it, so I went straightaway to YouTube, and, not too surprisingly, because everything seems to be on YouTube now, there it was. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds singing "Mbube" (you'll probably need to turn the volume up to hear it clearly):
I believe I hear a piano tinkling in the background there, though these voices hardly need any accompaniment. The article Paul provided tells the whole story of the song's recording, the money made from it, and where it went, which was not to Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, who were paid nothing beyond a very small recording fee. As the article notes, this unjust practice was standard at the time--American blues singers were treated similarly--and while this was clearly a rip-off, it was a practice that came into being when recorded music was still something of an afterthought to a performing career.
Lastly, bringing the song full circle from American pop to its African roots, here are The Mint Juleps, an a cappella British group, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with an arrangement that brings together the commercial and folk variants.
I absolutely love this clip. I guess I've watched it a dozen times over the years and it still delights me. It's from a 1990 PBS Great Performances show called Spike Lee & Co. Do It A Cappella. I taped the show when it was broadcast a couple of years later and we watched it several times with our children; it is, as they used to say, fun for the whole family.