In General

Brother Jack is back with a reconsideration of that old lefty anthem, Kumbaya.

Pete SeegerTime for a change of pace here at RCR, an interlude from the rock and blues. Time to quiet it down and turn off the amps. Time to tear down the drums, pack up the fuzz boxes, and bring out the acoustic guitars, banjos, dulcimers and autoharps. We’re going to talk about a folk song.

You readers know that my brother Tim came up in the heyday of rock and roll and tries to keep alive the memory of blues-influenced rock. Being a little older, I got caught up in an earlier craze, “the great folk scare” as it is sometimes called by the survivors of the era. So for a change of pace and a chance to give Tim a break from his grueling blogging schedule I’m going to talk about the world’s most famous folk song, Kumbaya.

You know the song; you may be very tired of the song. Maybe you were forced to sing it over and over at summer camp. Maybe you sang endless choruses at Folk Mass — “Someone’s dying, Lord, Kumbaya.” Maybe when you heard the song you felt like Bluto (John Belushi) in the movie Animal House when he came across an impromptu rendition of I Gave My Love a Cherry:

Kumbaya is much maligned these days. It would be hard to sing the song anymore without being ridiculed. Some people think that it addles the brain, getting people to sing together who really should be killing each other. Some people think the song encourages coddling terrorists. Many years ago, I saw a  T-shirt with a cartoon of a drill sergeant grabbing a long-haired peace protester around the neck and shouting, “Kiss my kumbaya, hippie!” That gave me a jolt. I used to sing the song a lot back in the days of the folk scare. I didn’t know I was making anyone angry. I was just learning my first three chords on the guitar. I played it a lot at Folk Mass in Ann Arbor, MI, and I’m sure there were a lot of people in the pews thinking “what ever happened to Panis Angelicus?” It wouldn’t have occurred to me then, but they may have wanted to do a Bluto on my guitar.

How was this song transformed from an uplifting spiritual to the whipping boy for the right? Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News did extensive research, and the first reference that he could find mocking the song was from Aug. 16, 1985. In a Washington Post review, Rita Kempley wrote, “Tom Hanks and John Candy make war on the Peace Corps in Volunteers, a belated lampoon of ’60s altruism and the idealistic young Kumbayahoos who went off to save the Third World.” Upon questioning by Weiss, Kemply could not remember seeing such a mocking reference before. Yet, probably Kumbaya’s loss of innocence started before 1985. The swing to the right was in full force during the Reagan years, and this innocent song was probably one of the first victims of the backlash.

The song got off to a non-controversial start. It was one of many folk spirituals found by collectors. Back in the time before internet and blogs, those wanting to prevent good music from being forgotten had to do it the hard way, by recording it on a wax cylinder. Two such music preservers were Robert Winslow Gordon and John Alan Lomax. Gordon founded the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and in his collection was a recording of Come By Here sung by Ethel Best and Group in Raiford, FL and recorded by John Lomax in early May of 1936. A transcription of this recording reveals a song that probably sounded very similar to the one recorded soon after the Selma march in 1965 by the congregation at Zion Methodist Church in Marion, AL: Come By Here

Robert Winslow Gordon

Robert Winslow Gordon, calibrating equipment for future use by RCR research staff

A similar song, Come By Yuh, was collected sometime between 1922 and 1931 and published in a collection of spirituals called “The Carolina Low Country.” Come By Yuh is Gullah dialect for “Come By Here” and is probably why the song came to be known as Kumbaya. Here is an example to give you an idea of how a spiritual sung in that area of Georgia sounded. This is Bessie Jones and the Georgia Island Singers performing O Day: O Day/Georgia Island Singers

A Rev. Marvin V. Frey copyrighted the song and claimed to have written it in 1936. The consensus now is that he wrote the song in the same way that George Harrison wrote My Sweet Lord. If you recall, the court ruled that Harrison subconsciously recalled an earlier song, He’s So Fine. Frey’s version of Kumbaya was published in hymnals and disseminated widely, and this is probably the reason it still survives.

During the time of the great folk scare, due to mistreatment at the hands of countless folkies, Kumbaya contracted a serious case of anemia and became ripe for ridicule. But the song still retained its power, propelled by the great voice of Joan Baez: Kumbaya/Joan Baez

Or this fine arrangement by those blacklisted lefties, The Weavers: Kumbaya/The Weavers

I believe Kumbaya was a victim of the political winds, and I say it’s time to resurrect it. In the best spirit of this blog, let’s try to find some new life in the old music. If ever there were a time we need to be singing together, it’s now — and this is a real easy song to sing and play. But maybe three chords on the guitar is a little too wimpy. Searching the web, I found a version with some powerful gospel piano and a full chorus — multicultural, no less. Check out this version from J’on & Voices. Maybe it will help bring the song back to life. And, as that old lefty Pete Seeger would say, “everybody sing along, Kumbaya”:

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Showing 7 comments
  • keena

    I will confess to being among those who never wanted to hear Kumbaya again. Ever. But that version by J’on & Voices is downright uplifting!

    Great post, Jack. Keep ’em coming.

  • admin

    I admit I was a little skeptical at first. He’s lucky RCR’s Editorial Board is stacked with family members.

  • kevin

    I was always a fan of Guadalcanal Diary’s version on 1984’s Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man. This version is most probably, maybe even obviously tongue-in-cheek, but they always played it earnestly in live shows, even thought he album version is a little more campy. Good post!

  • Eyegor

    I don’t care about the songs political leanings, but every beginning guitar or mandolin book I owned had it and after hearing it played so badly by myself and others makesme wantto scream and poke out my eardrums with icepicks whenever it’s played nowadays (“Free Bird” evokes a similar response).

  • admin

    You just need to come up with your own version… Maybe death-metal kumbaya?

  • old folkie

    As an old folkie and sometime amateur folklorist, I was pleased to read of Gordon and his work. I still Iike “Kumbaya”, and only the dry rot of boomer cynicism has put it out of favor. Folks like Gordon and the Lomaxes did incredible work that we are the beneficiaries of.
    I had read of Kumbaya being attributed to Africa. Glad to get the real story. I like lot of Sea Island Songs like “Sheep, Sheep” and “Traveling Shoes ” “We Shall Overcome” is due for revival, too IMHO.

    Peace, brothers and sisters.
    Old Folkie

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