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Kumbaya: History of an Old Song

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Freddie Palmer appeared with the McIntosh County Shouters at the Library of Congress on December 2, 2010.  Among the Gullah singing group’s many spirituals is the well known “Kumbaya.”  View their concert at the link!  Photo by Stephen Winick.

In honor of African American History Month, we thought we’d present a classic article from Folklife Center News. This one concerns the early history of the African American spiritual “Kumbaya,” also known by other titles such as “Kum Ba Yah,” “Come By Yuh,” and “Come By Here.”  In the years since this article was first published, we’ve learned some more about the song, and some other new developments have occurred. In particular, Dr. Griffin Lotson, Federal Commissioner on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission and the Mayor Pro Tem of Darien Georgia, has spearheaded a successful effort to get the song recognized as the official State Historical Song of Georgia. The Georgia Senate passed a resolution in February 2017, which you can read at this link. The information on the song’s history in the resolution was provided to the State Legislature by Dr. Lotson and came from the earlier version of this article.

Kumbaya: History of an Old Song

Odetta pictured in a 1958 Publicity photo by John Ross. From the Library’s New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. []
“Kumbaya,” once one of the most popular songs in the folk revival, has more recently fallen on hard times. In its heyday, from the 1950s through the 1990s, the song was recorded by dozens of artists, including Joan Baez, the Weavers, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Nanci Griffith, and Raffi in the United States; Joan Orleans in Germany; Manda Djinn in France; the Seekers in Australia; and many others around the world. However, overlapping with that heyday, from the 1980s through the 2000s, the song experienced a backlash. Musically, it came to be thought of as a children’s campfire song, too simple or too silly for adults to bother with. Politically, it became shorthand for weak consensus-seeking that fails to accomplish crucial goals. Socially, it came to stand for the touchy-feely, the wishy-washy, the nerdy, and the meek. These recent attitudes toward the song are unfortunate, since the original is a beautiful example of traditional music, dialect, and creativity. However, the song’s recent fall from grace has at least added some colorful metaphors to American political discourse, such phrases as “to join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,'” which means to ignore our differences and get along (albeit superficially), and “Kumbaya moment,” an event at which such naïve bonding occurs. (See this article for more on this change in meaning.)

Regardless of the song’s fluctuating connotations, one question has long fascinated scholars: what was the first “Kumbaya moment?” In other words, where and when does the song come from? To answer this question, there’s no better resource than the American Folklife Center Archive at the Library of Congress. The song’s early history is very well documented in the Archive, which includes the first known sound recordings of the song, and probably the earliest manuscript copy as well. In addition, the Archive’s subject file on the song (which gives it the title “Kum Ba Yah”) contains rare documents pertaining to the song’s history. Several researchers, most notably and recently Chee Hoo Lum, have used the Archive’s resources to tell the story of the song. (Lum’s article appeared in Kodaly Envoy, 33(3): pp5-11.)

However, the recent rediscovery of two versions at AFC—a manuscript taken down in 1926 and a cylinder recording made in the same year—makes a more complete account possible, and helps dispel some common fallacies about the song. One of these common misconceptions was espoused and spread by the song’s first appearances in the folk revival. The first revival recording of the song, which called it “Kum Ba Yah,” was released in 1958 by Ohio-based group the Folk-smiths. In the liner notes, they claimed that the song came from Africa, and presented as evidence a previous claim that the song had been collected from missionaries in Angola. On the other hand, some scholars have located the origin of “Kumbaya” in the work of an Anglo-American composer and evangelist named Marvin Frey. In 1939, Frey published and copyrighted sheet music for one version of the song, which he called “Come by Here.” Once “Kumbaya” was established as a standard of the folk revival, he pointed to his 1939 publication and claimed to have written the song; many commentators—including such publications as the New York Times—have chosen to believe his claim. This means that during the early years of the folk revival, there were two widely believed theories of the song’s origin (one ascribing it to black Africans and the other to a white American), and that both of these theories have persisted among some commentators to this day. As we shall see, in light of AFC’s two early documents, neither of these theories is likely.

The most common claim made today about the origins of “Kumbaya” is that it is from the Gullah-Geechee people of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. (The more outlandish versions of this theory, such as the one espoused on Wikipedia on April 2, 2010, claim that “Yah” is a remnant of Aramaic, and refers to God, despite the fact that “yah” means “here” in Gullah.) A Gullah origin is certainly possible, and is closer to the truth than either of the previous theories, but AFC’s archival versions also make the Gullah claim less than certain.

The Boyd Manuscript

Julian Parks Boyd. Photo from AFC Subject Files.

One of the earliest records of “Kumbaya” in the AFC archive is in a manuscript sent to Robert Winslow Gordon, the Archive’s founder, in 1927. The collector was Julian Parks Boyd, at that time a high school principal in Alliance, North Carolina. This version, which Boyd collected from his student Minnie Lee in 1926, was given the title “Oh, Lord, Won’t You Come By Here,” which is also the song’s refrain. Each verse is one line repeated three times, followed by this refrain. The repeated lines are: “Somebody’s sick, Lord, come by here,” “Somebody’s dying, Lord, come by here,” and “Somebody’s in trouble, Lord, come by here.” Although Boyd collected only the words, this structure is enough to mark Lee’s performance as an early version of the well-known “Kumbaya.”

Lee’s version of “Kumbaya” leads us to one of the many interesting stories hidden in the AFC archive: that of folklore collector Julian Parks Boyd. Boyd, who earned a master’s degree from Duke University in 1926, spent only one school year (1926-1927) at his job as a schoolteacher in Alliance. During that time, he showed a remarkable interest in folksong. From letters he sent to Gordon (now also in the AFC archive), we know that Boyd used a time-honored method among academic folklorists: he had his students collect traditional songs from their friends and families in the rural community around the school. Although he was apparently quite selective, keeping only those songs he deemed true folksongs and discarding the rest, he amassed a collection of over a hundred songs, from which he created a typed manuscript. Boyd knew of Gordon through his columns in Adventure magazine, and sent the manuscript to him for his advice and comments in February, 1927.

By March, Boyd’s program of collecting folksongs had encountered a serious obstacle, and that, among other things, convinced him to leave Alliance for graduate school. “The school board and the community in general seem to think that [collecting folksongs] is an obnoxious practice, for some uncertain reason. The seniors were righteously indignant—it was the one thing that had thoroughly aroused their interest,” he wrote to Gordon on March 30. “This particular [school board] fits Woodrow Wilson’s definition of a board: ‘long, wooden, and narrow,'” he continued. “And that explains why I am going to pursue my doctorate at Pennsylvania next year.”

Boyd’s departure for the University of Pennsylvania probably marked the end of his work as a folksong collector, but it was the beginning of a distinguished career as a historian and librarian. He eventually served as Head Librarian and Professor of History at Princeton University, as the founding treasurer of the Society of American Archivists, and as president of the American Historical Association (1964) and the American Philosophical Society (1973-1976). As an historian, he is best known as the editor of a definitive edition of the papers of Thomas Jefferson. (Read more in his ANB biography.)

Before he left to take up the mantle of history, however, Boyd spent one more, brief period as a folklorist. In his March 30 letter to Gordon, Boyd alludes to plans for a summer field trip to collect folksongs in the Outer Banks. The trip was sponsored by Professor Frank C. Brown of Duke University, then president of the North Carolina Folklore Society. Although the correspondence from Boyd to Gordon terminates before the trip was to have started, we have no reason to think the trip was cancelled. Furthermore, the Society’s collection, later published as the seven-volume Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, contains many items collected by Boyd, including the same version of “Kumbaya” that Boyd sent to Gordon. It has been overlooked by previous scholars of the history of the song, undoubtedly because its title, “Oh, Lord, Won’t You Come By Here,” bears little resemblance to the more familiar title, “Kumbaya.”

Boyd sent his manuscript collection to Gordon in Georgia, before Gordon moved to Washington, D.C. and founded the Archive of American Folk-Song—which is now the American Folklife Center archive. Gordon brought the manuscript with him to Washington, where it was among the original materials deposited in the Archive in 1928. Thus, from the very inception of the Archive, it contained at least one version of this classic song.

Cylinder Recordings and Other Evidence

Robert Winslow Gordon was the first head of the Archive of American Folk-Song, which is now the American Folklife Center archive. In this Library of Congress photo from about 1930, he appears with part of the cylinder collection and recording machinery.

The Boyd papers make it clear that “Kumbaya” was represented in the Archive’s very first collections. More surprisingly, a sound recording of the song was also among the archive’s initial holdings, a fact that until now has been difficult to establish with certainty. Among the original materials in the AFC Archive were four cylinder recordings of spirituals with the refrain “come by here” or “come by yuh,” collected by Gordon himself during his trips to Georgia from 1926 to 1928. Gordon was convinced all four songs were related, and cross-referenced them when he made a card catalog for his manuscripts and cylinders. Subsequently, one of the four cylinders was broken, and one was lost, so two remain in the Archive. However, without hearing the cylinders it would be impossible to state with certainty whether either were a version of “Kumbaya.”

One of these cylinders, which clearly is not a version of “Kumbaya,” was transcribed by AFC staff member Todd Harvey and published in Chee Hoo Lum’s 2007 article. Entitled “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” the song has six verses, each of which is just one line repeated six times:

(1) Daniel in the lion’s den
(2) Daniel [went to?] God in prayer
(3) The Angel locked the lion’s jaw
(4) Daniel [took a deep night’s rest?]
(5) Lord, I am worthy now
(6) Lordy won’t you come by here

Insofar as it suggests the interaction of the song “Come by Here” or “Kumbaya” with a narrative spiritual based on the biblical story of Daniel, this song is interesting to researchers of “Kumbaya.” However, because it would not itself be considered a version of “Kumbaya” by most folklorists or musicologists, it cannot establish a definitive date in the history of “Kumbaya.”

Lum included “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” in his article because it was the earliest surviving recording that Gordon had cross-referenced with the phrase “Come by Here.” Strangely, however, Lum did not analyze or publish the second surviving cylinder, instead including a transcription of the version recorded by John Lomax in 1936. This is a pity, for although a section in the middle of Gordon’s second cylinder is inaudible, several verses at the beginning and the end are audible, and are enough to identify it conclusively as “Kumbaya.”

As far as we know, this cylinder is the earliest sound recording of the song, and it is therefore among the most significant evidence on the song’s early history. You can download it at this link or hear it in the player below!

So what do we know about this cylinder?  As with many of Gordon’s cylinders, there is not much written contextual information accompanying the recording, but here is what we know:

Robert W. Gordon’s catalog card for Wylie’s “Come By Here.”

The song is identified as “Come By Here.” The singer is identified only as H. Wylie. The place is not identified at all, but during this period Gordon was living in Darien, Georgia, and rarely collected more than a few hours from there. The cylinder is numbered A389 and “Georgia 156.” The cylinder is undated, but all the dated items in Gordon’s numbering system from A290 to A434 are from April, 1926; the last precisely dated cylinder before “Come By Here” is dated April 15, and the first after it is dated May 3, so from the written evidence it appears the song was recorded within that two-week period.

This suspicion is confirmed by the cylinder itself.  At the end of the cylinder, Gordon’s voice faintly says something, which appears to be: “Sung by Henry Wylie, Darien, Georgia, April the seventeenth….”

The song’s lyrics and music are as follows; the transcription of the words is mine, and represents my best attempt to understand what Wylie is singing. The music was transcribed by Jennifer Cutting, and similarly represents her best effort to accurately represent Wylie’s tune.


Music transcription by Jennifer Cutting. Click to enlarge!

.. . need you Lord, come by here,
Somebody need you, Lord, come by here,
Somebody need you, Lord, come by here,
|Oh, Lord, come by here.

Now I need you, Lord , come by here
Sinners need you, Lord, come by here
Sinners need you, Lord, come by here
Oh, Lord, come by here.

Come by here, Lord, come by here
Come by here, my Lord, come by here
Come by here, my Lord, come by here
Oh, Lord, come by here.

In the morning see Lord, come by here
In the morning do Lord, come by here
In the morning see Lord, come by here
Oh, Lord, come by here.

[inaudible section]

Oh, Lord , come by here.
I’m gon’ need you, Lord, come by here
I’m gon’ need you , Lord, come by here
I’m gon’ need you, Lord, come by here
Oh, Lord , come by here.

Oh , sinners need you, Lord, come by here
Sinners need you, Lord, come by here
Sinners need you, Lord, come by here
Oh, my Lord, won’t you come by here

In the mornin’ mornin’, won’t you come by here
Mornin’ mornin’, won’t you come by here
In the mornin’ mornin’, won’t you come by here
Oh, Lord, come by here.

Chris Smith, a researcher in the AFC reading room who is working on an index of the Gordon recordings, found out more about Wylie, the singer recorded on the cylinder. Smith found that Wylie’s recordings seem interspersed with those of Jeff Union, who was recorded on April 17, 1926, at W.T. Marlow’s camp in Darien. Therefore, it is likely that Wylie’ recordings were made at the same place.

Henry Wylly’s draft card was found for us by Chris Smith. We believe this is the same man who sang “Come By Here” for Robert W. Gordon on April 17, 1926.

Looking for draft and census information, Smith found documents which may give a few details of the singer’s life. Smith writes:

Henry Wylly, born September 26 1899, registered for the draft on September 12 1918, checking the box ‘negro,’ and making his mark rather than signing. He was a boat hand, living in Crescent, McIntosh County. He is married to Felia (it looks like) Wylly, resident in Eulonia, which is also in Mcintosh County. Henry Wylly also appears in the 1920 census as a ‘mulatto,’ widowed, aged 20, and a convict in the Darien county jail. Darien is the county seat of McIntosh County, of course. It’s not clear to me whether this is the same man as Henry A. Wiley, sentenced to life for murder in McIntosh County, received into the system on July 22 1919, escaped on July 26 1926. There’s a tick, but no date, in the ‘Recaptured’ column of the register.

Various publications from the era of Wylie’s performance suggest the song’s range and its influence. In 1926, for example, a song entitled “Oh, Lordy Won’t You Come By Here” was published by the songwriter Madelyn Sheppard, who was later half of a songwriting duo with Annelu Burns. (Sheppard and Burns were notable for being two white women from Selma, Alabama who composed blues songs and spirituals in African American dialect and sold them to African American publishers, including WC. Handy.) Sheppard’s song is not the same song as “Kumbaya,” but its publication in the era during which the earliest versions of “Kumbaya” were emerging suggests that she was familiar with the traditional song.

In 1931, the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals published a song that they called “Come by Yuh,” in a book entitled The Carolina Low Country. The exact date of the song’s collection is not mentioned in the book, but all of the book’s songs were collected between 1922 and 1931. (As a consequence, it is impossible to know whether this version predates any or all of Gordon’s materials, and it therefore may be impossible to identify with certainty the first verifiable reference to the song.) This song has the refrain “Come By Yuh, Lord, come by yuh,” and a repeated verse “somebody need you lord, come by yuh.” Gordon called one of his now-unplayable cylinders “Come by here, Lord, come by here,” and the other “Somebody need you Lord, come by here,” suggesting that these were all the same song. It is also very similar to the song we know as “Kumbaya.” By 1931, then, the song had likely been recorded or transcribed from at least five singers, and other songs bearing the stamp of its influence had been recorded and published as well.

In 1936, John Lomax, Gordon’s successor as head of the Archive, recorded another version of “Come by Here” for the archive. The singer was Ethel Best of Raiford, Florida. Each verse was a single line repeated 3 times, followed by “oh, Lord, come by here.”

(1) Come by here, my lord, come by here
(2) Well we [down in?] trouble, Lord, come by here
(3) Well, it’s somebody needs you lord, come by here
(4) Come by here, my lord, come by here
(5) Well it’s somebody sick Lord come by here
(6) Well, we need you Jesus Lord to come by here
(7) Come by here, my lord, come by here
(8) Somebody moanin’, Lord, come by here

Download it at this link, or hear it in the player below!

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the archive recorded the song several more times in Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.

How the New Evidence Affects Theories of the Song’s Early History

Pete Seeger made one of the earliest popular recordings of the song “Kumbaya.” Photo by Robert Corwin, March 2007, in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium. AFC Robert Corwin Collection.

Clearly, by the advent of the 1940s, “Come By Here” was a widely known spiritual among African Americans in the South. Yet, as noted above, the song has often been identified as a 1936 composition of New York City songwriter and evangelist Marvin V. Frey (1918-1992). As we have seen, this confusion stems from claims made by Frey himself; in 1939, Frey published a version entitled “Come By Here,” on which he claimed copyright. Frey claimed to have written the words in 1936, based on a prayer he had heard from an evangelist in Oregon. Frey might have been basing his story on the truth; the evangelist he mentions could have been adapting the song, which, as we have seen, was already widely known by then. To what extent, then, was his “Come By Here” an original composition?

Chee-Hoo Lum attempted to answer this question in his article. Unfortunately, by skipping over the 1926 Georgia performance by H. Wylie (recorded by Gordon) to present the 1936 Florida performance by Ethel Best (recorded by Lomax), Lum missed the opportunity to compare Frey’s song with Wylie’s, or with popular versions of “Kumbaya.” He seems to find the 1931 publication in The Carolina Low Country to be insufficiently close to Frey’s later version to constitute clear evidence that Frey’s composition was based on the traditional song. Therefore, he concludes that Frey’s authorship claim is “the first possible ‘origin’ theory” for the song. Wylie’s version, however, preserved by AFC on a cylinder recording, is closer to Frey’s, in both lyrics and music, and predates it by almost ten years. Given the existence of Wylie’s version, then, Frey’s claim to have composed the song based on a spoken prayer, rather than a song, becomes very unlikely.

Moreover, the plausibility of Frey’s claim to have written the song also depended on another factor: Frey was obligated to explain how a song written by a white man and called “Come By Here,” had become “Kum Ba Yah” or “Kumbaya” in the oral tradition. After all, a song written in Standard English, and originally disseminated in print as “Come By Here,” would be more likely to enter oral tradition in Standard English, and to be collected with a pronunciation closer to that dialect. One of Frey’s stories about the song had the effect of explaining this anomaly; he told it to Peter Blood-Patterson, who sent it the AFC archive in 1993. It is filed in the “Kum Ba Yah” subject file:

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 camp ground, 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 thereafter 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.

According to Frey, then, the pronunciation “Kum Ba Yah” originated when Luvale-speaking people in Angola and Zaire translated “Come by Here” into their language. That strains credibility on several levels, primarily that “Come by Here” translated into Luvale would not be “Kum Ba Yah;” indeed, for “Come by Here” to translate to “Kum Ba Yah,” the target language would have to be a creole with English as one of its main components, and no such language was common in Angola (then still a Portuguese colony) or Zaire (a country formerly colonized by Belgium, whose primary colonial language was French) in the 1930s. Moreover, the AFC’s cylinder recording of H. Wylie shows that we have no need of such a story. In Wylie’s dialect, which is most likely a form of Gullah, the word “here” is pronounced as “yah,” rendering the song’s most repeated line “come by yah,” a phrase that can be phonetically rendered as either “Kum Ba Yah” or “Kumbaya.”

This photo by Michael Reese shows a marker near Marvin V. Frey’s gravesite in the West Barre Cemetery in Orleans County, New York, which still advances his claim to the authorship of “Kum Ba Yah.” Photo used by permission.

If Frey’s claim to have composed the song becomes more farfetched in light of this cylinder recording, so does the notion that the song originated in Africa. The idea of an African origin was based on the understanding of Lynn and Katherine Rohrbough, who published song books through the Cooperative Recreation Service of Delaware, Ohio. (AFC has acquired their collection, a major resource for the study of folksongs in schools and summer camps.)

As the Folksmiths’ liner notes explain, the Rohrboughs heard the song from an Ohio professor, who claimed to have heard it from a missionary in Africa. No account that I have seen establishes a date for this occurrence, so the idea that the song was African in origin (rather than an American song that had traveled to Africa) seems to have been based on the fact that the words “Kum Ba Yah” sounded vaguely African, and the fact that the Rohrboughs were unaware of American versions that predated their own publications of the song. Indeed, according to Frey’s interview with Blood- Patterson, once the Rohrboughs learned of Frey’s previous claim, they conceded that the song was Frey’s, so they seem to have had little confidence in their own claim of an African origin for the song. Thus, AFC’s cylinder, with a pronunciation very close to “Kum Ba Yah,” would seem to eliminate the last piece of circumstantial evidence for an African origin.

The Folksmiths, pictured here in 1957, made the first folk revival recording of “Kumbaya.” Photo courtesy of Joe Hickerson.

Finally, the third theory about the song (that it originated in Gullah Geechee) is still possible, but it’s weakened by the Boyd manuscript. Even without that version, it is clear from AFC recordings that “Come by Here” was known fairly early throughout the American south, including Texas, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. Before the rediscovery of the Boyd manuscript, however, the first known versions were Gordon’s cylinders, which were from Georgia, and the transcription published in The Carolina Low Country, which was from South Carolina. These are all most likely Gullah versions. Their appearance so early in the song’s history suggested to most scholars that the song originated in the Gullah Geechee region and spread from there. The Boyd manuscript, however, is from Alliance, North Carolina, significantly north of Gullah territory. Therefore, from the time of the song’s earliest record, it seems to have been shared among both Gullah speakers and speakers of other African-American dialects. Given this, although a Gullah Geechee origin is certainly still possible, we can’t be fully confident that the song originated in Gullah, rather than in African American English more generally. But it is certainly likely that Gullah Geechee versions led to it becoming a popular song today.

In summary, then, the evidence from the American Folklife Center Archive does not fully support any of the common claims about the origin of “Kumbaya.” Instead, it suggests that “Kumbaya” is an African American spiritual which originated somewhere in the American south, and then traveled all over the world: to Africa, where missionaries sang it for new converts; to the northwestern United States, where Marvin Frey heard it and adapted it as “Come By Here”; to coastal Georgia and South Carolina, where it was adapted into the Gullah dialect. It was likely versions in Gullah Geechee dialect that made it to the Northeastern United States, where it entered the repertoires of such singers as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez; and eventually to Europe, South America, Australia, and other parts of the world, where revival recordings of the song abound. Although it is truly a global folksong, its earliest versions are preserved in only one place: the AFC Archive.

Coda: “Kumbaya,” the Archive, and the Revival

Poster for the Folksmiths, 1957. Courtesy of Joe Hickerson.

The adoption of the song “Kumbaya” into the folk revival also has connections with the American Folklife Center Archive. As we have already seen, the song became popular after it was published by Lynn and Katherine Rohrbough. In 1957, folksinger Tony Saletan learned the song from the Rohrboughs. He taught it to a group from Oberlin College known as The Folksmiths. The Folksmiths toured summer camps in the summer of 1957, and they taught “Kumbaya” (or, as they called it, “Kum Ba Yah”) to thousands of American campers, helping to cement the song’s association with both children and campfires. The Folksmiths also recorded the song in August, 1957, on an album called We’ve Got Some Singing to Do, which was released on the Folkways label in early 1958. This was the first published recording of the song. Later that same year, Folkways released a version by Pete Seeger, with the title “Kum Ba Ya.” In 1959, Seeger’s group The Weavers recorded the song, this time as “Kumbaya.” The transformation of the song’s title from “Come by Here/ Come by Yah” to “Kumbaya” was complete.

Most later folk revival versions of the song undoubtedly derive from these three influential recordings, all of which have connections to AFC’s Archive. Seeger was an intern at the Archive in the 1930s, and has revisited AFC many times since then, most recently in 2007. In several recent interviews, he has made it clear that he once heard the extant Gordon cylinder recording of “Come by Here” at the Archive, although he is not sure when this visit to the Archive occurred. As for Hickerson, after his one year with the Folksmiths, he trained as a folklorist and archivist, and got a job at the AFC Archive; he eventually rose to be Head of the Archive, a position from which he retired in 1998. The moral of the story seems to be: while you can take “Kumbaya” out of the AFC Archive, you can’t take the Archive out of “Kumbaya.”



Comments (22)

  1. A very special thank you to Stephen Winick for his work, and other top executives from the Library of Congress, namely, Todd Harvey and Elizabeth Peterson, for providing Griffin Lotson the opportunity to continue his recent discovery and continue research on the history of the Kumbaya song, now having its rightful place in history, for nearly 6 consecutive years Griffin Lotson have been finding new information about the Song “Kumbaya” and he Griffin Lotson gladly work with these outstanding individuals from the Library of Congress, State Legislators and Federal congressional officials, as well as many others. ( A true Good “Kumbaya” moment of all working together for the good). Griffin Lotson was birth into the Gullah Geechee Culture, now truly do give a special thanks to a lady by Sudy Leavy first asked him to look into the research, and from 2012 a special thank you to the Library of Congress for allowing him Griffin to work with them over the last several years in the Folklife section of America and World Historian, now we have over 1 billion people in the world that know this song or phrase “Kumbaya” aka “Come By Ya” the original first known recording in the world 1926, Song by Henry Wylie (Henry Wiley) of the Gullah Geechee African-American Culture from Darien, Georgia and recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon in Darien, Georgia.

  2. What a fascinating history for this song. Thank you. We may sing it at church this Sunday for an amazing Sunday school teacher and Religious Education staffperson who is leaving her position but not the congregation. I sent her the link to this research and she loved it.

  3. Thanks so much for all the documentation! And go take that Frey sign down!!

    Here’s a clarification:

    In the sixth line of Ethel Best and Company’s version, she’s saying, “We need you, Jesus; won’t you come by here?” and not “We need you, Jesus Lord, to come by here.”

    Thanks, again! I do “Kumbaya” in many a program, and tie it in with the story of Lucy McKim Garrison and her vital song collecting work. Now, I can with even more authority; bless you!

    • Thanks, Sule. The lyrics of Ethel Best’s version given here were transcribed by Todd Harvey of the AFC staff for a researcher in 2003. Luckily, on the blog we can provide the audio so readers/ listeners can decide for themselves.

  4. PS: I went to Oberlin for two years (1975-1977), and can add the Folksmiths’ sharing and recording of the song the year I was born!! to my story…. and bless Joe Hickerson, too! (I used to work at SI)

  5. Wow, this is timely! I just spoke with a local historian in Orleans County who expressed her concerns regarding the Frey historic marker. We’ll be looking at the best possible way to address the inaccuracies of the information on this marker. Thank you for the thorough research on this subject!

  6. Thank you for a wonderfully thought-provoking discussion of the history of this song. As an American historian, I am currently in South Africa completing a Fulbright Specialist Project, and I have really enjoyed listening to a concert version of the song that the Soweto Gospel Choir recorded on “Blessed”(2006).

  7. How bizarre of this account to completely ignore the prevalence of antiblack racism as part of this history. It reads as if black Africans would have had the same level of recognition and access to recording and publishing resources. It reads as if black Africans and African Americans were taken seriously, were allowed legal ownership of anything and as if white missionaries, business owners, politicians, and academics would have been objective about everyone’s rights and participation. Blacks were not even allowed in the same state buildings, educational, and arts and cultural buildings. This is how the subtle whitewashing of history occurs.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kress14. Of course you are right that antiblack racism was certainly a major reason for which so many people and institutions were willing to claim and accept that a white person wrote this song. (Whether any individuals mentioned in the article had racist motives is hard to say, and not a charge I would make lightly.) As the article (I hope) makes clear, it was almost certainly black African Americans who composed and created the song, and I’m very happy to point that out to anyone who will listen!

  8. Not mentioned here, and almost certainly unprovable, is the theory advanced by some of the descendants of the Gullah Geechee culture (“Gullah” being a corruption of Angola, where many of the slaves in the South Carolina and Georgia low country began their ocean voyage), is the theory that both the “come by here” and the reference to a specific time (in the morning) were coded messages to travelers on the underground railway, with the song sung in the evenings to indicate a safe house.

  9. I found this research to be quite insightful. I’m left wondering about Minnie Lee. If the lyrics were collected from her, who was she—beyond a student? Was she African American? How did she come to know the song? The catalyst for the song’s eventual recording seems to be Ms. Lee, but she seems skimmed over here. I would love to know more about her.

  10. first heard of the song, while providing an after school program in an unprivilege area in Georgia. At the time unfamiliar with the history of the song. It felt like it came from Africa and now that the true history is known it all makes sense and the effects of the song. Thanks

  11. This information is so interesting. As a retired Librarian, I am thankful for the earliest recording in 1926. I first learned this song and “Do Lord” in the Summer Vacation Bible School at Epworth Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1962-1968. As a child, I was told these songs were from Africa. Thus, they endeared me to the African people during a time when there was fear and hatred everywhere in our state and elsewhere during the Civil Rights marches. This last summer, when the BLM Marches were being held, these songs and others I learned at VBS soothed and comforted me when anxiety was high about COVID and the deaths of African Americans by some in the police system. I wish everyone could learn them and sing them again. The time now is right for a remembering of such soothing songs.

  12. So excited to find this article on-line. I first heard this song when I began my camp career at Y Camp Ohiyesa out of Metro Detroit Y in the summer of 1966. At that point we were told it was an African song and the verses used were—Someone’s crying (in need), then Someone’s praying (for help) and the someone’s Singing (for the answer given). Prior to the verses we sang the chorus and the last verse we sang the 3 ‘crying, praying, singing’. We sang in English–come by here and the K b ya. When I left the 2 Y camps of Detroit in 76 I spent 10 more full years at Y Camp Foster in Spirit Lake, Iowa and we used it a lot. And, there are hand motions that fit perfectly also. I have observed as this article states how the words and song have been captured by some for fun or satiracle use—K B Y moments, etc. Great song, great message.

  13. How arrogant to dismiss the idea of Africans creating their own songs, or bringing them with them. Additionally, West Africans were part of the original Diaspora. When Portuguese and others colonizers encountered them, they had Hebrew names, customs and beliefs. How irresponsible to imagine the name of the song as a coincidence of phonetic likeness or transliteration.

    Each word of the song title is an actual Hebrew word: Kum means arise; bah means come or is coming and Yah is the name of the Eternal God.

    God, arise and come. Arise and come, God.

    Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.

    • Thanks for your comment. The heroes of my story are African American speakers of Gullah and Geechee, who are no less worthy than their ancestors from Africa. Of course Africans could and did bring their own songs with them from Africa, and the melody of “Kumbaya” could be one of them. But the Angolan and other African ancestors of the people living in the Gullah-Geechee corridor did not speak Hebrew. Their languages were the Bantu languages that spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa between 1000 BCE and 1 CE–that is to say, between 3000 and 2000 years ago. In west Africa, the most widely spoken among enslaved people were probably Yoruba and Kikongo or Congo. In addition to the Luvale language mentioned in the article, the Bantu languages of Angola include Umbundu, Kikongo, Kimbundu, and Kwanyama. (I used to speak a little Kwanyama myself, having spent time over the border in Namibia.) Given that “Kum Ba Ya” doesn’t mean anything obvious in these languages, and that the rest of the words like “somebody need you, Lord” are obviously in a dialect of English, the most plausible origin is still the one embraced by my friends in the Gullah and Geechee community, including Griffin Lotson, who assure me the words were created by their African American ancestors in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, and that they are Gullah vernacular speech for “come by here.”

  14. Fascinating journey of revelation into the origin of Kumbaya. It’s clear connection to the God of The Bible raises another possibility for understanding. It is quite possible that the refrain has been “anglicized” from an earlier meaning. The Name of God from Exodus 3:14 is HAYAH and has the pronunciation of “eye-yah” and its spelling in Hebrew as Aleph-Hay-Yod-Hay. This pronunciation along with the
    statement of Christ to the deceased daughter of Jaris “talitha cumi” as He raised her from death, reveal the possibility that the original refrain might be simply “Cum Hayah” which would replicate the Name of The Father and the command of Christ, The Son, to them thatare dieing or dead to “Come”.
    As no one knows the “original refrain” and all we have are the latter 1926 version, its well within the realm of possibility that the first speaking of the refrain was simply the Hebrew words “Cum Hayah” meaning “Come HAYAH” or “Come God.”

    More understanding on how The Name of God, The Father, is confirmed to be “HAYAH” can be found under the “whadeffa” channel on “YouTube”.

    Respectfully, A.N. Ragouzis 12 29 2021

  15. Thank you for the excellent write up. God Bless you and all who protect and serve.

    I cannot believe anyone could disrespect this beautiful song, just the words are enough to bring a tear. It takes us right back to our child like uncondtional love the world tries so hard to steal from us.

    “Unless we become as little children”….. If its good enough for Jesus its good enough for us.

    KUMBYA MY LORD KUMBYA – If it doesnt touch our hard hearts we are doing something wrong. We can be doing a trillion things anywhere in the world and PRAY KUMBYA MY LORD KUMBYA and The Lord will hear for sure. I now constantly Pray it in whatever I am doing and the soul gives thanks. Even the gift of being able to see this article and responds. God Is Great.

    Peace & Love to ALL creation.


    I found this song again whilst googling George Harrison – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”(worth checki8ng out how it came to fruition, again we need to start listening to our inner self) last night before I went to bed.
    I hadnt heard Kumbya for years and love the seekers version when it came out many moons ago. Though felt nothing about it, no kind of spiritual movement inside. This morning at 06:29 the song came on out of nowhere and just moved me so much it brought tears.

    How many times we look but do not see, listen but do not hear!!

    A gift from God indeed.

  16. First and foremost thank you so much for sharing this history. It is very interesting and profound to learn the origin of where things began and the origin of songs and language. With that being said brings me to my curiosity from my own studies. If Yah is a Hebrew word written in Aramaic is it, then also possible that the Gullah Geechee people from West Africa are Israelites? Also if we studied the Uto Azteceans language which also contains Hebrew dialogue could possibly mean that the melanated people of the Americas came from Africa far before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and are possibly connected or are Israelites? This idea is just so interesting theory based upon my studies and family history of the South. This idea could change history; meaning that many of the slaves were natives, then became prisoners of war who became slaves on their land. It amazes me how history (He-story) seems to have this pattern of the victor telling the story; conquering then writing about it. We do know that the children of Israel after fleeing from Egypt went to the four corners of the earth, but when will they be identify with their tribes is the answer I am seeking. A Marvelous article thank you so much again for your research and your hard work to preserve the credibility of a people’s culture.

  17. Throughly enjoyed reading the history of. Song I learned as a child . It also speaks to me in showing how important the past is to understand the present and I’m sure this song will live on and may be adapted again the future .
    Good Bless you for reading my thoughts .

  18. This is a brilliant piece of scholarship. It bothers me how this song, clearly a song asking for a higher power to come and save people in their hour of pain and suffering, has become like an insult: “Don’t go all Kumbayah on me!” I am not religious, but certainly enslaved Gullah and Geechee people working the hot swamps of the Carolina coast have much reason to call out for help. The repetitiveness of the song and, indeed, its openness to invention and improvisation makes it sound like a work song but one more appropriate for the water rice plantations than a cotton field or railroad line. I can see the flowing movement of back bending, planting, pulling, and the voices singing together. Also, the comment about the “yah” reference (here) being from the Aramaic really blows my mind. The Institute for Advanced Study tells us that “Aramaic was one of the major languages of the ancient Near East. Since the Middle Ages, it has largely been replaced by Arabic, but it survived as a spoken language in a number of Jewish communities in the mountainous regions of northern Iraq, south-eastern Turkey, and western Iran down to modern times.” Are the Gullah and Geechee people remnants of a Near East Jewish population? The mind continues to be blown. Thank you for your scholarship.

  19. This is brilliant. I teach in a new community music program in Canada where we work with undergrads all the way through to Ph.D.s now. . I am working on reapproaching community song in using global studies methodologies and OMG. . truly this was stuck in my head and am rearranging it as an example of transcultural song. The recordings and the research you[‘ve done benefits so many. Deep thanks to you. — gyun

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