In 2010, a story in The New York Times noted that the song, “Kumbaya,” had lately been “transformed into snarky shorthand for ridiculing a certain kind of idealism, a quest for common ground.”
I remember singing the song in the 1960s, and we loved it. It was no joke; it called us toward something better than what we knew. I did not initially know that “kumbaya” meant “come by here” and was meant as a prayer to God.
“Come By Here” is a song “deeply rooted in black Christianity’s vision of a God who intercedes to deliver both solace and justice,” The NY Times piece said.
The oldest known recording of the spiritual occurred in the spring of 1926 when a “nearly broke” Robert Winslow Gordon “captured the sound of someone identified only as H. Wylie, singing a lilting, swaying spiritual in the key of A. The lyrics told of people in despair and in trouble, calling on heaven for help, and beseeching God in the refrain, ‘Come by here’,” the Times said.
“Whenever somebody jokes about ‘Kum Bah Ya,’ my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types, to come and help in the process of voter registration and Freedom School teaching and taking great risks on behalf of the transformation of that state and of this nation. There were two weeks of orientation. The first week was the week in which Schwerner and Goodman and their beloved brother Jimmy were there. And it was during the time that they had left the campus that they were first arrested, then released, and then murdered.
“The word came back to us at the orientation that the three of them had not been heard from. Bob Moses, the magnificent leader of so much of the work in Mississippi, got up and told these hundreds of predominantly white young people that, if any of them felt that at this point they needed to return home or to their schools, we would not think less of them at all, but would be grateful to them for how far they had come.
“But he said let’s take a couple of hours just for people to spend time talking on the phone with parents or whoever to try to make this decision and make it now. What I found as I moved around among the small groups that began to gather together to help each other was that, in group after group, people were singing, ‘Kum Bah Ya, come by here, my Lord, somebody’s missing, Lord, come by here. We all need you, Lord, come by here.’
‘I could never laugh at Kum Bah Ya moments after that because I saw then that almost no one went home from there. They were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together ‘Kum Bah Ya.’‘
African American spirituals speak a deep message even when the words are simple. They arose out of a life-denying experience that gave birth to deep trust in God in the face of inhumane treatment by other humans.
Kumbaya. Come by here, my Lord. Come by here.