The History and Meaning of Finding Kumbaya

The NYT attempts to preserve or even restore meaning for the song often known only as Kumbaya

The lyrics told of people in despair and in trouble, calling on heaven for help, and beseeching God in the refrain, “Come by here.”


Far from compromise, “Come By Here” in its original hands appealed for divine intervention on behalf of the oppressed. The people who were “crying, my Lord” were blacks suffering under the Jim Crow regime of lynch mobs and sharecropping. While the song may have originated in the Georgia Sea Islands, by the late 1930s, folklorists had made recordings as far afield as Lubbock, Tex., and the Florida women’s penitentiary.

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, “Come By Here” went from being an implicit expression of black liberation theology to an explicit one. The Folkways album “Freedom Songs” contains an emblematic version — deep, rolling, implacable — sung by the congregation at Zion Methodist Church in Marion., Ala., soon after the Selma march in March 1965.

Like other songs I have mentioned before here, it was an encoded message among slaves to fight against injustice such as restrictions on speech.

To sing Kumbaya was to resist, perhaps even to signal to others an event that would need more resources — calling in backup. The peculiar characteristics of this song that originated in the American south are born out of resistance to authority; simple repetition with obfuscation helped ensure the availability, integrity and confidentiality of a message.

Also Folklife Center News, Volume 32, Nos 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010, in their exhaustive research of the song origins, explains how an alleged link is problematic and… Wikipedia tends to publish garbage.

The most common claim made today about the origins of “Kumbaya” is that it is from the Gullah-Geechee people of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. (The more outlandish versions of this theory, such as the one espoused on Wikipedia on April 2, 2010, claim that “Yah” is a remnant of Aramaic, and refers to God, despite the fact that “yah” means “here” in Gullah.) While a Gullah origin is certainly closer to the truth than either of the previous theories, AFC’s archival versions also call the Gullah claim into question.

The Folklife Center News provides instead a self-dealing alternative story:

…the evidence from the American Folklife Center Archive does not fully support any of the common claims about the origin of “Kumbaya.” Instead, it suggests that “Kumbaya” is an African American spiritual which originated somewhere in the American south, and then traveled all over the world…. Although it is truly a global folksong, its earliest versions are preserved in only one place: the AFC Archive.

Coastal Georgia and South Carolina is somewhere in the American south, no? Perhaps too specific. Either way, Kumbaya is a fight song.

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