STLT#401, Kum ba Yah (Come by Here)

One of the blessings of my seminary experience was getting to know the remarkable singer and scholar Kim Harris; she was finishing her PhD while I was getting my MDiv. She became a friend and confidant, a mom when I was going through the worst of my heart troubles, a singing partner, and at least once formally, my teacher.

That semester, she taught a class on Spirituals; the class wasn’t just about the history, however; it was also about using the spirituals to deepen our own spirituality. By chance, the group was entirely women, a perfect mix of ages, sexual identities, and racial identities. We learned together,  and we sang together, and often our singing was a prayer together.

This song, with its original words “Come By Here” was particularly meaningful, as Kim tossed aside the whole “kumbayah” mythos and modern meaning and brought us back to the deep, mournful hope of this song. We prayed this more than once as a group, hands on each other’s shoulders, tears rolling, connections to ourselves, each other, and the Divine made real.

I almost hesitate to keep the “kumbayah” lyric in here, except it is in our hymnal and I can’t deny its existence.  But after the lyrics, I’ll share an excerpt from a 2010 New York Times article that talks more about the song and how it got corrupted.

Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.
Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.
Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.
Oh, Lord, kum ba yah!

Someone’s singing, Lord…

Someone’s laughing, Lord….

Someone’s weeping, Lord…

Someone’s praying, Lord …

Kum ba yah, my Lord …

This article sprang up because “kumbayah” had made its way into the political discourse, but it’s been in the pop culture discourse for a few decades. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I feel it necessary to share this bit:

“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.

The mixed blessing of the movement was to introduce “Come By Here” to sympathetic whites who straddled the line between folk music and progressive politics. The Weavers, Peter Seeger, the Folksmiths, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary all recorded versions of the song.

By the late 1950s, though, it was being called “Kumbaya.” Mr. Seeger, in liner notes to a 1959 album, claimed that America missionaries had brought “Come By Here” to Angola and it had returned retitled with an African word.

Experts like Stephen P. Winick of the Library of Congress say that it is likely that the song traveled to Africa with missionaries, as many other spirituals did, but that no scholar has ever found an indigenous word “kumbaya” with a relevant meaning. More likely, experts suggest, is that in the Gullah patois of blacks on the Georgia coast, “Come By Here” sounded like “Kumbaya” to white ears.

So a nonsense word with vaguely African connotations replaced a specific, prayerful appeal. And, thanks to songbooks, records and the hootenanny boom, the black Christian petition for balm and righteousness became supplanted by a campfire paean to brotherhood.

“The song in white hands was never grounded in faith,” Professor Hinson said. “Its words were simplistic; its tune was breezy. And it was simplistically dismissed.”

Go read the whole thing… and please, use this song with care.

Kim and Reggie came to the Keys while I was doing my internship; we took a photo together at this great place for Cuban sandwiches.

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