What does “Kumbaya” mean and why should we care?

Race, culture, humor, politics, stereotypes, class, language – a few topics that come up around the song “Kumbaya”.

Kumbaya is pigeon English of the phrase “Come By Here”.  I came across an excellent arrangement of “Come By Here” in the GIA African American Church Music Series. It was done by Uzee Brown Jr.  As I meditated on the meaning of the song, I was struck by the cry of the oppressed for the Lord to hear and respond. It’s a lament and a statement of faith in a God who does see and hear and is able to intercede and deliver. However, it’s a song that is plagued by an unfair stereotype as a symbol of irrelevant and meaningless expressions of pseudo-unity.

Wikipedia led me to this excellent 2006 article by Jeffrey Weiss published in the Dallas Morning News. Here’s a few select quotes:

Sometime between 1922 and 1931, members of an organization called the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals collected a song from the South Carolina coast. “Come By Yuh,” as they called it, was sung in Gullah, the Creole dialect spoken by the former slaves living on the Sea Islands. […]

Jump forward to the mid-1950s and the Cooperative Recreation Service, an Ohio-based publisher of songbooks for camps and scouts. Joe Hickerson, a folksinger and former director of acquisitions for the American Folklife Center, credits Lynn Rohrbough, the owner of Cooperative Recreation, with getting “Kumbaya” to the masses. If a camp wanted a music book with, say, 40 songs, Ms. Rohrbough would offer 30 from her stock inventory and add 10 new ones, Mr. Hickerson said. “Kum By Yah” – described only as an “African” song – was part of the Rohrbough inventory by 1956. As a result, it showed up in countless books of camp songs used by the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and others. “The camp counselors who played guitar liked it because it only has three chords,” Mr. Hickerson said. […]

For the next 25 years, it was just one folksong among many. But in the early 1980s, something happened. “Kumbaya” became the English-speaking world’s favorite folksong to ridicule, the musical metaphor for corny camaraderie. How? Someone’s wondering, Lord. An extensive (and we do mean extensive) search of databases of newspapers, magazines and other sources turned up what may be the first ironic reference to “Kumbaya” in print, from Aug. 16, 1985. The line is from a Washington Post review by Rita Kempley of the comedy movie Volunteers: “Tom Hanks and John Candy make war on the Peace Corps inVolunteers, a belated lampoon of ’60s altruism and the idealistic young Kumbayahoos who went off to save the Third World.”

Read the article to get the whole story.

Anyhow, the whole topic seems to be a mixed bag of cultural misappropriation, political rhetoric, Baby-boomer nostalgia, commercialization of racial stereotypes, the American-style cross-pollination of  black and white music, to name a few. I’m not sure what to make of it all except to take the song for what it is, cultural baggage and all. In a lot of ways, this song tells a lot more about Black History than if a hypothetical slave-composed spiritual was unearthed by archaeologists in it’s original 19th century form. It tells a more complicated story that goes deeper than face value. Much of African American cultural has been either repackaged in a derogatory form for mass consumption (as in the Minstrel Shows) or (despite good intentions) has been dissected and sterilized by academic study. Kumbaya is an excellent example of a song that was made internationally available but in the process it was robbed of it’s meaning. What would the song have meant if it was left as the local prayer a few saints on the coast of South Carolina?

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  1. #1 by Deborah M. on August 31, 2014 - 10:06 pm

    Replying to Kumbaya… I am personally sickened by people unconsciencously saying Kumbaya for analyzing polictical policy , reference to others implying that they are wantabees or grouping some kind if situation by saying “they are a bunch of Kumbaya ‘s. Sang this song in early 1950 ‘s & 1960’s at Sunday school or other church activities. I finally looked up its meaning. . And , it embarasses this white lady that people use this so casually. They most likely have no idea of its meaning. To use this in an unreverent way is uncalled for & to not connect to its profound history is ugly to me.I pray Lord come near us all. We seem to be an oppressed nation in many ways. I sing Come by here Lord. Amen

  2. #2 by Thokozani Ndlovu on December 3, 2015 - 6:41 am

    Oh i love the song since my son of 6 year was taught in one of the independent schools in KwaZulu Natal, I can feel a touch as we sing it, its like somehow interceding for everyone just the every nation here. i love it to bits.

  3. #3 by PK on December 6, 2015 - 11:03 am

    Amen. And amen.

  4. #4 by M. Trahan on February 22, 2016 - 11:29 pm

    This song has recently become dear to me. My children are raised to truly know that the Lord hears their prayers. What I found comforting is that after telling my children about their grandfather’s passing away, my 9 year old daughter who has Asperger’s syndrome found comfort and peace in singing this song. Every time her sorrow would return, she would sing this song with gentle sobs and each time the Lord would “come by here” and grant her peace.

  5. #5 by BLESSBAKER MATOVU on May 12, 2016 - 2:29 pm

    The song is too good in that drives my spirit into devotion. I love it so much

  6. #6 by Michelle on December 9, 2016 - 6:10 pm

    All human culture is cultural appropriation, and in the process the original meaning is changed. I don’t think that’s so awful, it’s part of what makes us human. What is awful is clinging to something and saying, “You can’t use this, it’s mine. If you use this, you are a thief.”

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