Gullah Geechee Community Finally Credited with Song “Kumbaya”


Dr. Anne C. Bailey is a Jamaican American academic, historian, author and friend – a former U.S. Fulbright Scholar. She is also a blogger, and has recently published a book called The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History. You can read her latest post in full here. A fascinating story about that song we all know, which always reminds me of 1960s folk singers and peace protests… Kumbaya.

Queen Quet is the first elected head of state for the Gullah Geechee Nation. (Photo: gullahgeecheenation.com)

Gullah Geechee community finally credited with song “Kumbaya”

Many a camper in America and around the world know the camp favorite, “Kumbaya.”  It is known as a song of peace, a song of community. Few may know, however, that the song was first recorded by descendants of slaves in the Gullah Geechee community of Darien in Southeastern Georgia. Over the last ten years, I have had the pleasure of interviewing and listening to members of this community for my book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History.

The Gullah Geechees have now been credited with the song’s origin and a resolution recognizing Georgia’s first state historical song has been enacted. Gullah Geechee native and Mayor Protem of Darien Georgia, Rev. Griffin Lotson, did the research and with representatives of the Folklife Center in the Library of Congress found the first original wax cylinder recording. Listen to it here.

The story goes that Robert Winslow Gordon, a Harvard graduate who later became the first Head of the Archive of American Song at the Library of Congress, recorded the song in 1926.  Henry Wylie was the singer and a member of the Gullah Geechee community. “Kumbaya” meant “Come by here” in Gullah and was a plea to God for help.  In the interim years, missionaries and folk singers including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Odetta made the song popular around the world, but if we look closely at the lyrics, we see how similar they are to Negro spirituals.  Negro spirituals or as African American scholar, W.E. B. Dubois called them, sorrow songs, were a cry for help.  They were an important part of the oral tradition that allowed the enslaved to share their most intimate desires and needs with God.   They were mostly Christian songs but also sometimes had a subversive message. Coded language in songs were used to help runaway slaves find freedom by means of the Underground Railroad trail. As such, these songs represented their hope for freedom and better days.

Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters, who share the oral traditions of Southeastern Georgia and the Gullah Geechee community all over the world.
https://www.geecheegullahringshouters.com/

Those cries and that hope are heard in the song kumbaya which has finally gotten its due.  The fact that many things in African American culture quietly become mainstream without recognition of their origin makes this long overdue recognition all the more significant.

So next time you sing or hear “kumbaya,” remember this beautiful community and one of their gifts to the world.

Kum ba ya, my lord, Kum ba ya!
Kum ba ya, my lord, Kum ba ya!
Kum ba ya, my lord, Kum ba ya.
O Lord, Kum ba ya

Someone’s crying, Lord, Kum ba ya!
Someone’s crying, Lord, Kum ba ya!
Someone’s crying, Lord, Kum ba ya!
O Lord, Kum ba ya

Someone’s singing, Lord, Kum ba ya!
Someone’s singing, Lord, Kum ba ya!
Someone’s singing, Lord, Kum ba ya!
O Lord, Kum ba ya

Someone’s praying, Lord, Kum ba ya!
Someone’s praying, Lord, Kum ba ya!
Someone’s praying, Lord, Kum ba ya!
O Lord, Kum ba ya

Anne C. Bailey
email: freedomlives4@yahoo.com

For more on Gullah Geechee history and culture –Book available on Amazon

The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History  by Anne C. Bailey (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Federal Commission Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor
https://www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org/

http://www.annecbailey.net (website)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABUZcObLc_8(interview with author)

Kumbaya

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