Music Trekking: A History of Kumbayah

Come by Here: A Short History of Kumbayah

If you’ve ever gone to summer camp or sat around a campfire with a guitar, chances are good you’ve sung “Kumbayah.” It’s one of those wonderful – make it up as you go – folksongs. After the first verse of Kumbayah, you can sing that someone is crying, laughing, sleeping, etc. and add as many verses as you want. The song is different and unique each time it is sung. But have you ever wondered where it came from and what it means? Here’s a little bit of the background and history, plus two slightly different versions of this well-known song.

History of Kumbayah

Did someone compose this song? Is it from Africa? From America? It’s background is a bit cloudy, but this much is certain. A minister named Reverend Marvin V. Frey claimed to have authored the song in 1936 when he was inspired by the preaching of a woman evangelist. He published it as a songsheet with the title “Come By Here”. The original meaning was that the song was a prayer or invocation. The words ask God to come and be by our side as someone is smiling, or laughing or sad. The Rev. Frey claimed that the song changed names around 1946 when a missionary family returning from Africa traveled around the USA singing it with the altered lyrics, “Kum Ba Yah”. However, the song also appears as “kumbayah” sung by people who speak “Gullah” in the Georgia and South Carolina Seas Islands. So, it is hard to say what it’s exact origins are, but clearly the song has been well-loved, popularly sung and made it’s way around both the United States and the world, and has been changed as it traveled from country to country.

Here’s my video version of Kumbayah with a South African feel.

Here’s a version that is quite different but still very beautiful sung by the Soweto (South African) Gospel Choir for your listening pleasure:

So after checking out these two versions, are you ready for a campfire-style sing-along of the popular version of this song? Before you groan because you’ve heard this song so many times, remember that if you are singing it with your family or friends, you can make it fresh in lots of great ways. If you have children, you can play with the hand motions. If you’re doing a boring task, ask your kids for an activity and then sing new verses for each of them. If you’re stuck in the car for a long ride, try making up verses from something seen out of the window: “Someone’s driving in a blue Ford truck, Kumbayah.” “Someone’s walking their dog by the side of the road, Kumbayah. “ Believe it or not, it’s great first songwriting exercise and a fun way to play with words, sounds and music in the form of a game.

No matter how you chose to share this well-loved song, you’ll be inspiring some wonderful musical memories. What a great way to become part of the folk process!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Award-winning children’s performer, DARIA (Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou) has created 7 cd’s that have won national honors. She has the most awesome job of traveling the world to sing for kids and peace. Her “world music for kids” website, www.dariamusic.com, was given a 2009 Parents Choice Award for its musical and cultural content.  She has also created a multicultural kids video site as well as My Favorite Multicultural Books.

A free copy of this month’s song can be downloaded on Daria’s Monthly Song Page.

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