Like a true folk song, the words of Kumbayah have evolved and been reinvented by succeeding generations. The genealogy of Kumbayah includes Negro Spiritual, a quiet prayer song, a progressive church hymn, a popular protest song during the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently, a symbol of modern cynicism.
There are countless and cultural ways of singing Kumbayah. Some people sing the words prayerfully, and slowly with dignity. Around a campfire, the rhythm and pace of Kumbayah accelerates and clapping to the beat is popular. The song’s title is pronounced “koom bah yah”, and tradition says that it means “Come By Here.” The meter and rhythm of the song lend themselves well to improvisation and new stanzas are constantly being added. They include, “Someone needs you, Lord, Someone’s praying Lord.” The refrain Kumbayah is generally sung as it was originally written:
Kumbayah, my Lord, Kumbayah, Kumbayah, my Lord, Kumbayah, Kumbayah, my Lord, Kumbayah, Oh Lord, Kumbayah.
As Robert Cummings in All Music Guide expresses it, “The theme is quite simple, with three ascending notes answered almost by their mirror image in a mostly descending phrase. This pattern is repeated until the melody closes with a resolute, descending pattern of six notes, on the words, “O Lord, Kumbayah.”
The Origins of Kumbayah
Like a true folk song, the origins of Kumbayah are obscure and controversial. Some folklorists say that Kumbayah originates with the Gullah people from West Africa who were originally brought to the United States in the 1750s to work rice plantations in the Carolinas, and on the Sea Islands. They speak a language called Gullah which is a mixture of English and several West African tongues.
Between 1922 and 1931, an organization calling itself the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals collected a song from the South Carolina coast, sang in Gullah and pidgin Hebrew. In Gullah, Kumbayah means “come by here” and in Hebrew “Yah’ means God. The lyrics can be translated “come by here, God.”
The African and American Kumbayah
James F. Leisy in Folk Song Abecedary, Hawthorn Books, 1966, says that Kumbayah is traditional in Africa, where missionaries discovered it and brought it to America. Leisy contends that” as the world gets smaller and cultures mix, more of this tradition swapping is bound to take place.”
Recordings of Kumbayah were made in America in the 1920s. Between 1926 and 1928, Robert Winslow Gordon, founder of the modern American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress recorded four versions of traditional spirituals with the refrain, “Come by Here.”
In May 1936, his successor John Lomax, the head of the folk archives of the Library of Congress, discovered Ethel Best singing “Come by Here,” with a musical group in Raiford, Florida.
Reverend Marvin V. Frey’s Kumbayah
Reverend Marvin V. Frey claimed to have written Kumbayah in 1936, and called it “Come by Here.” He claimed he was inspired to write the song when he heard “Mother Duffin,” a storefront evangelist in Portland, Oregon, praying. He said his version of the song first appeared in Revival Choruses of Marvin V. Frey, a lyric sheet that he had printed in Portland in 1939.
Reverend Frey claimed that the change in title to Kumbayah happened in 1946, when a missionary family returned from Africa where they had sung his version and changed the words slightly. The family toured America and popularized Kumbayah.
Pete Seeger Traces Kumbayah
In a July 2003 interview, with Norman Ross,folk singer Pete Seeger added his explanation to the origins of Kumbayah. “I’ll tell you the history of it. I introduced it as an African song, then I found that Marvin Frey, who was a member of Amiee Semple McPherson’s church said he wrote it as ‘Come By Here.’ But I went to the Library of Congress and heard some recordings of it from the ’20s. As so often happens subliminally to songwriters, he must have heard it and written a version in 1936 that he taught to some missionaries leaving for Angola-and it became very popular all over the West Coast of Africa as “Kumbaya’ – the African pronunciation.“
Kumbayah’s Folk Song Evolution
Folksinger Joe Hickerson recorded Kumbayah in 1957, and Peter Seeger and the Weavers recorded it in 1958. Largely because of folksingers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Kumbayah became one of the Civil Rights songs of the 1960s. People held hands and sang Kumbayah on Civil Rights marches and at protest rallies against the Vietnam War.
Kumbayah was one of the songs that the baby boom generation sang to express idealism and joined hands to while they acted to change the world. Kumbayah made the generational transition as a campfire song and a song of unity. It was a standard Scouting, YMCA and Asian Guide song. During the 1970s, it was commonly used in folk masses.
From Campfire to Cynicism
In more modern times,Kumbayah is often sung satirically and against a backdrop of figuratively and literally clenched fists. Kumbayah is used as a verb, meaning hypocritical, naive, and holding an unrealistic view of politics and human nature. Kumbayah originally was a symbol of human and spiritual unity, a song that united a generation and transcended the divide between generations. Kumbayah is a folksong that needs to be sung with its original intent and in its original key.