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.

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