‘Kumbaya’: Why the Bum Rap?

The Mystery of a Much-Maligned Music Memory

By Al Perrotta Published on May 13, 2015

What did “Kumbaya” ever do to anybody?  You know what I’m talking about. There’s a disagreement going on and someone says, “Whataya expect us to do? Sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya’!?” Or a politician mocks his opponent for having a “Kumbaya moment.”

Somehow, singing “Kumbaya” became an object of scorn, synonymous with having a ridiculously naïve, rose-colored view of the world. Making its demise all the more mystifying is lyrically “Kumbaya” doesn’t overdose on sugary sentiment. “We Are the World” anyone?

A sing-a-long at a Methodist summer camp (photo by Gordon Parks)

A sing-a-long at a Methodist summer camp (Gordon Parks)

The song’s history is almost as mystifying: Evangelist Marvin V. Frey long claimed he wrote the original version, called “Come By Here,” in 1936, based on a prayer he’d heard in Oregon. Frey said missionaries brought his song to Zaire and Angola, where “Come By Here” was translated by the native Luvale speakers as “Kum Bah Yah.” The re-titled song came back to the U.S. and the rest, he claimed, is history.

Frey’s claim is undercut by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The Center houses a cylinder recording of “Come By Here” dating from 1926 and collections of the song that date even earlier. For that matter, “Kum Bah Ya” does not even mean “Come By Here” in Luvale.

American Folklife Center’s Stephen Winick believes the song likely began as an African-American spiritual originating somewhere in the South. Among those who got hold of the spiritual were the descendants of slaves off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina who speak a dialect called Gullah. “Come By Here” in Gullah is “Kum Bah Yah.”

Whatever its specific origin, “Come By Here” is, as The New York Times put it, “a song deeply rooted in black Christianity’s vision of a God who intercedes to deliver both solace and justice.” This spiritual was a deep-hearted plea to the Living Christ in the dark days of Jim Crow, and poured out of America’s black churches at the kick-off of the civil rights movement. Then came the folkies and the “rediscovery” of “Kum Bah Yah.”

The first revival recording of “Kum Bah Yah” came courtesy of a folk group called The Folksmiths. Their 1957 tour of summer camps brought the song to kids across America. (They also spread the notion the song was of recent African origin.) The song gained steam the following year when Pete Seeger’s The Weavers released their version, now spelled “Kumbaya.” The Seekers took the song international in 1963 and by the mid-sixties, “Kumbaya” was a staple at folk events, church gatherings, campfires and summer camps the world over.

Although Univ. of North Carolina professor of folklore Glenn Hinson far overstated the case that “the song in white hands was never grounded in faith,” what is true is that by the 1980s the powerful spiritual-turned-pious sing-along had lost its soul. “Kumbaya” had become what one writer called a “mocking metaphor.”

Still, why “Kumbaya”? Why not “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” or “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” or any of the hundreds of other folk revival and church favorites that rose above the campfire or echoed off Sunday school walls?

Perhaps it’s not the song itself, but the memory of singing the song; the recalled emotion of those idyllic days free of worry and responsibility and full of possibility and community. The warm glow we now have trouble feeling. As freelance writer Michael E. Ross eloquently put it, “Maybe it’s an indication that without the personal compass we lost on the trail years ago … we can’t find that campfire anymore.”

The situation may even be worse.  Perhaps we don’t even want to look for that campfire, convinced by a cynical, secular culture that the campfire never really existed. What mocking “singing ‘Kumbaya’” really means is, “I no longer believe in the positive feelings and possibilities I associate with those days.”  That’s not taking a pot shot at a tune. That’s taking a blast at hope. A cold dismissal of what was warm and good.

How do we rediscover the trail and get back to the campfire?  There must be some yearning within the culture to join together in simple song. The monster hit “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers and Grammy wins for roots band Mumford & Sons speak of a yearning for the unprocessed, unAuto-Tuned sound of community and camaraderie.

“Someone’s singing Lord, kumbaya …”

Perhaps the season is ripe for “Kumbaya” to return to our good graces.

“Someone’s laughing, Lord, kumbaya …”

After all, given what’s going on in the world, shouldn’t we want to be singing “Kumbaya”?

“Someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya …”

Sure, its three easy chords can’t do much to ease the suffering or cynicism. But they do point us down a proper path.

“Someone’s praying Lord, kumbaya. Oh Lord, kumbaya.”

In the end, the answer to how we regain our hope, rediscover the campfire, is found in “Kumbaya” itself.

 “Come By Here, my Lord. Come By Here. Oh, Lord, Come By Here.”

 

 

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