Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2019 | 9 minutes (1,738 words)
Sometime between mid April and early May 1926, Robert Winslow Gordon, the first head of the Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, D.C., recorded a man singing on a wax cylinder. That man, known only as H. Wylie, was from the Georgia Sea Islands and sang in a Gullah accent. The song he sang, “Come By Here,” is an invocation. “Somebody need you, Lord, come by here,” he sings in an insistent lilt. The lyric is a repetitive incantation.
Gordon recorded three other wax cylinder versions of the same song in Georgia between 1926 and 1928, ones with the refrain “come by here” or “come by yuh,” indicating the Gullah dialect. Accordingly, he cross-referenced the recordings in his organization’s archive card catalog. Of those, one cylinder broke and another was lost. In addition, the archive was in possession of a written manuscript containing a version of the song from Alliance, North Carolina, called “Oh Lord, Won’t You Come By Here,” collected in 1926 and sent to the archive the following year. The repetitive lyrical structure is the same as in the Georgia recordings. “Somebody’s sick, Lord, come by here,” it read. “Somebody’s dying, Lord, come by here.”
There is no doubt that, by the late 1930s, “Come By Here” was a popular African American spiritual in the South, known in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Nevertheless, “Come By Here” was co-opted by white intermediaries into what modern listeners now know as “Kumbaya,” which itself has evolved from a campfire sing-along to a folk music anthem to a national joke.
The real message in the history of “Kumbaya” is about ownership: of a song, of its meaning, of the voice of an entire segment of the United States population. It has lived its parallel lives down through the decades because of two almost-exclusive communities: the one that created it, and the one that appropriated it.
Probably because of the song’s popularity, many have attempted to claim it. Madelyn Sheppard, described by writer Stephen Winick as half of a duo of white women who wrote songs in an “African American dialect and sold them to African American publishers,” published “Oh, Lordy Won’t You Come By Here” in 1926. This song bears little resemblance to the recorded versions of “Come By Here” collected by the Archive of American Folk Song, but the title is nearly identical to “Oh Lord, Won’t You Come By Here,” collected by the Archive from the source in North Carolina.
In 1939, composer and evangelist Marvin V. Frey published “Come By Here” as his own composition, claiming lyrical inspiration from a sermon he heard in Oregon. Its melody and form are identical to the versions Gordon recorded more than a dozen years before, and thus we can be sure that Frey heard the well-known folk song and claimed it for himself.
None of this would have made much difference were it not for a spate of popular recordings that white folk singers retitled “Kumbaya.” One of the first was by the Folksmiths, from their 1958 album We’ve Got Some Singing To Do. Not only does the song’s title sound like a phonetic approximation of the Gullah dialect sung by H. Wylie all those years ago, but “Kum Ba Yah” is also the same song.
“This is a song from the West coast of southern Africa,” read the album’s liner notes. “Like many African songs, it combines elements of harmony and response which are helpful in group singing. Verses can be made up ranging from ‘someone’s reading’ to ‘someone’s groaning’ etc. One version appears in print in several pocket songbooks of the Cooperative Recreation Service of Delaware, Ohio and is Copyrighted by them. They collected it from a professor at Baldwin Wallace College in Ohio, who heard it from a missionary in Angola, Africa.” This origin story is not true. Circumstantially, it’s clear that an American wrote the song. Lynn and Katherine Rohrbough, who published the songbook, seemed unaware of this fact and conceded the song’s authorship to Frey once they heard his claim.
Joan Baez’s 1962 version put the song on the map and fixed a new name in the popular consciousness. From now on, white people would sing “Kumbaya.”
Although it’s not clear that he asserted his copyright on these recordings, Frey continued to claim to be the song’s author. Once “Come By Here” transformed into “Kumbaya,” he needed to explain the title change of a song he supposedly wrote. His intricate explanation, as he offered it to Peter Blood-Patterson, is worth reading in its entirety:
While [I was] leading children’s meetings at a camp meeting in Centralia, Washington, a young boy named Robert Cunningham was converted. He sang this song at the top of his high, boyish voice all over the campground, for he was happy and irrepressible. His family were preparing to go as missionaries to the Belgian Congo (Zaire). Their particular burden was for Angola (to the south and west), which at the time was closed to Protestant missionaries.
Ten years later, while in Detroit, Michigan (1948) … the [Cunningham] family sang “Come by Here” with my second tune, the one I had taught in Centralia (1938), and there after the theme of my revival crusades. The song by now had become a standard in Pentecostal, Holiness, Evangelical, and Independent churches and Sunday schools. They first sang the song in English, then in an African dialect, with the words, KUM BA YAH, with some African drums and bongos, a slow beat — a very effective presentation. Later I found out that the language was Luvale, which pervades throughout northeast Angola and southeast Zaire.
Possibly apart from the irrepressible young convert and his missionary family, this explanation is entirely specious. There is no such African word as “kumbaya.” What is most likely true is that Frey was trying to maintain a claim to authorship of a song that was never his.
As the predominately white folk scene established itself in the 1950s and ’60s, “Kumbaya” became a staple, covered by the Seekers as well as Peter, Paul, and Mary. No artists, it seemed, gave songwriting credit to Frey. Pete Seeger, who also recorded the song, knew its origins well. “The man who wrote ‘Kumbaya my lord, Kumbaya,’ thought he wrote that until the day he died,” Seeger said in 2003. “He was very proud that African Americans had speeded up his song and that they liked to sing ‘Come by here, my Lord …’”
“Come By Here” was affected by more than just a title change. By substituting a nonsense word for an appeal for help, “Kumbaya” neatly plucked out any agency. African Americans, singing during the torments of Jim Crow, beseeched God to help them in their struggle: “Someone’s dying, Lord, come by here.” The white version simply noted a bland condition, “Someone’s sleeping, Lord,” followed by a word which connotes a vague understanding without action: “kumbaya.” The false claim that “kumbaya” is an African word is a kind of monstrous imprimatur. “This song had to travel to foreign lands and be brought back to us before it achieved its rightful place in our songlore,” read the Joan Baez songbook in 1964. In fact, it was in our backyard all along.
Glenn Hinson is a professor of folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The song in white hands was never grounded in faith,” Professor Hinson told the New York Times. “Its words were simplistic; its tune was breezy. And it was simplistically dismissed.” It’s my belief that the song is derided as much as it is because it was so enfeebled. A campfire sing-along treatment tends to find the lowest common denominator of melody and meaning. In the meantime, “Come By Here” stayed in the black community as the century progressed, as evidenced by the powerful version sung by the Zion Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama, during the height of the civil rights struggle in March 1965. This is an invocation of the terrible God of the Old Testament, the one who will trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
Until the 20th century, music was generally believed to belong in the public domain. “Thus the two primary conceptions of authorship for much of the 18th century,” Matthew Gelbart writes in The Invention of ‘Folk Music and ‘Art Music’: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner, “were practical-functional (author as relayer and assembler of material) and symbolic (author as divine channel).” This was certainly the case in both the white and black communities in the United States, at least until the advent of writer royalties.
“Although I’ve admired a few professionals like Gershwin,” Seeger told American Songwriter, “I have to admit that my favorite songs have been put together by amateurs. My father used to say, ‘Most folk music is the product of plagiarism.’ That’s what I learned from Woody Guthrie. You borrow a tune here, then change it a little bit. You borrow some words there. Then add to them. You don’t claim to be original.”
But the history of American folk and protest music does not reflect an egalitarian effort. Instead, our musical canon is littered with examples of a dominant class taking the voice of the dominated. Minstrel and coon Songs were composed almost exclusively by white people mimicking African Americans in order to create and maintain stereotypes. Most women’s suffrage songs were written by men. Arguably, the most obvious example of this cultural dissonance is “Kumbaya.” Initially a song belonging to an imperiled community, it became a flaccid feel-good sing-along. Long established in the African American oral tradition, it was copyrighted by a white man for profit and credit to his songwriting ability. That this appropriation was continued by the leftist folk music crowd changes none of this traditional dynamic.
We are well past time to have a kumbaya moment in this country. It just won’t be what most people think. We need to come together, arms around one another, surely. We need to sing in harmony — but not with one, mediated, voice. We will achieve unity through our diversity, not in spite of it, only then will our great chorus rise. The first thing anyone must have in order to vocalize is possession of their own voice. We need atonement, Lord. Come by here.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.