Vivian’s Music Notes 3/8/20

Director of Music Vivian Montgomery’s Music Notes are published in the weekly order of service and here at 

Music Notes for March 8: On Kumbaya

The 75 people at Melanie DeMore’s beautiful solo show in February were asked to pledge never to use the phrase “Kumbaya moment” again – will you? Once you’re called to imagine an enslaved person, or someone “freed” yet facing the horrors of Jim Crow, alone and terrified, crying out to God to “come by here,” and once you’ve heard Melanie sing it, you’ll never think of it as a saccharine campfire song again. You’ll have another chance to hear her, and be led by her, in this song at our March 29 Freedom Land Music Service, so think of today’s inclusion of it as a closing hymn, and upcoming inclusion as a Centering Hymn, as mindful stops along a transformative journey.

Kum ba yah is an African American spiritual sung in the Gullah Geechee culture of the islands off South Carolina and Georgia, with ties to enslaved people brought to America’s southeastern coast from West Africa. The refrain is a Gullah pronunciation of “Come By Here,” capturing the song’s essence as a call to God to help the people as they faced oppression. The hardship continues to this day, as rising property values, discriminatory property rights policy, and zoning laws threaten the Gullah Geechee community. Many have been pressured to leave their dialect and traditions behind, but there’s a growing interest in preserving the culture, and its denizens. Melanie is a powerful force in that movement, and we can link ourselves to her drive for justice simply by singing a moving song with openness and sincerity.

For many years, a white evangelist named Marvin V. Frey claimed to have composed Kumbaya and had a copyright on it. An old wax cylinder recording discovered by Robert Winslow Gordon, the first head of the Archive of American Folk Song, proved otherwise – “Come By Here” can be heard in a Gullah accent 10 years before Mr. Frey claimed to have written it.

In an NPR opinion piece, journalist Linton Weeks asks “When did Kumbaya become such a bad thing?” Writer Michael E. Ross says “Derision of the song and its emotional foundation has become a required sign of toughness and pragmatism in American politics today, and this is especially true since the Sept. 11 attacks.” It’s not hard to find this connotation ironic, considering the song’s origins, described by folklorist Samuel Freedman as “a black petition for balm and righteousness…supplanted by a campfire paean to brotherhood.” Weeks writes that Kumbaya became “a tune floating on the winds of change. And then, the winds changed…Snarkiness swept across the land, and Kumbaya became its victim…the song hasn’t changed, but America has.” Can we reclaim the song, its sentiment, and bring ourselves closer to deeply understanding the experience that birthed it?