In ‘Kumbaya,’ the Culture of Slaves’ Ancestors Comes to Life
Posted February 9, 2018 6:23 p.m. EST
We chant it with locked arms and closed eyes, at campfires, in protests lines and from the pews at church, but the truth is, many of us have no clue what the lyrics mean or exactly where they come from.
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya. Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya.
Thanks to research and lobbying by residents of a coastal community descended from slaves, the origins and meaning of “Kumbaya” have been recognized in Congress, raising hopes that a fading culture might get a boost. The song may be sung more often than usual this month, especially in the part of Georgia where its soulful lyrics are said to have originated almost a century ago.
Speaking on the House floor two months back, Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia recognized the Gullah Geechee, whose ancestors were brought to America’s southeastern coast from West Africa, as the probable creators of the famous folk song.
If you’re searching for deep meaning in the word itself, the truth, as Carter laid out in his proclamation, is that kumbaya is probably a made-up word. Still, it has come to evoke peace and harmony — sometimes mockingly so.
The first known recording of the song was made in Darien, Georgia, in 1926, sung by a Gullah Geechee man named H. Wylie. The chorus was actually “Come By Here,” which in the Gullah’s Creole accent sounds like cum-by-yah. Over time, that pronunciation transformed into what we know today as kumbaya. The hymn was a call to God to come and help the people as they faced oppression.
The Gullah Geechee, who have seen their land and way of life threatened by rising property values, now hope to use the congressional proclamation, as well as the Georgia Legislature’s recognition of “Kumbaya” as the state’s historical song, to help promote their story. An exhibition about the song is planned for this month in Darien, which sits along the 1,200-mile coastal corridor where the Gullah people settled.
“It’s significant,” said Anne C. Bailey, a historian at Binghamton University and author of “The Weeping Time,” a book about the largest slave auction in America. “It says something about the African-American tradition and the African-American contribution to the building up of the country and the world.”
Someone’s singing, Lord, kumbaya. Someone’s singing Lord, kumbaya.
For decades, the dominant narrative was that a white evangelist, the Rev. Marvin V. Frey, had originally composed “Kumbaya.” This story was spread in part by Frey himself, who got a copyright on the song in 1939, claiming to have written it in 1936 based on a prayer he heard in Oregon.
Something about that story never sat right with Stephen Winick, who has a doctorate in folklore. For one, the song sounds like something from the African-American tradition. Winick had also heard rumors that there was an earlier recording of the song in the archives of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where he works.
“I think it’s important to restore cultural materials to their communities of origin,” he said. “Give credit where it’s due.”
Several years ago, Winick dug up that old wax cylinder recording. It was captured in 1926 by Robert Winslow Gordon, the first head of the Archive of American Folk Song. It was the recording of H. Wylie singing “Come By Here” in an accent that sounds like “kumbaya,” a decade before Frey claimed to have written “Kumbaya.” Winick said it was possible that Frey may have heard a prayer with the kumbaya lyrics, and composed them into a song, thinking he was the first to do so. But the evidence on that remains murky.
Winick also found in the archives lyrics collected in 1926 by a high school student outside of Gullah territory for a song similar to “Come By Here.” That raised the possibility, Winick said, that the song might not have originated with the Gullah Geechee, though he maintains that it is quite possible that they could be its creators. The version of the song as we know it today very likely traces to the Gullahs because of the pronunciation of “come by here” as “kumbaya,” he said.
“I think that in the general public, if you ask someone on the street, ‘What does kumbaya mean,’ they wouldn’t know,” he said. “They would think it means joining hands and being friendly to each other.”
Someone’s laughing, Lord, kumbaya. Someone’s laughing, Lord, kumbaya. Griffin Lotson, the Gullah historian, knew nothing of the song’s connection to his people until he started researching it in 2012, and since then he has been on something of a crusade to elevate its history.
Many Gullah Geechee, Lotson included, were conditioned to think that in order to live a successful life, they had to leave their dialect and traditions behind, he said. But now there is great interest in Gullah culture, from inside and out.
He was hired to consult on a scene in the remake of the television miniseries “Roots.” He is often called upon to give cultural tours.
Lawmakers realized the importance of preserving the Gullah Geechee culture years ago when, in 2006, Congress created the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The Gullah Geechee hope that the recognition of their role in the origins of “Kumbaya” will represent one step toward popularizing, and preserving, who they are.
“Gullah Geechee culture has influenced everything, from our music to the way we speak,” Heather Lorraine Hodges, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, wrote in an email. “It is a foundational culture for the United States.”
Someone’s crying, Lord, kumbaya. Someone’s crying, Lord, kumbaya.