"Kumbaya" is a song created by the Gullah, an African American people of the Sea Islands along coastal South Carolina and Georgia. "Kumbaya" was originally pronounced in a way the Gullah might speak to say "Come by ya". It means "Come by here". It's literally asking God to "come by here" and help the singer.

Notes

The campfire classic Kumbaya has a fascinating history. For many years, it was thought that the song originated in Angola. It turns out, it's the creation of the Gullah, an African American people of the Sea Islands along coastal South Carolina and Georgia.

The Gullah were originally slaves from West Africa, brought to the US to work rice plantations. After the Civil War many of them chose to stay on the land that their labor had turned prosperous and their descendants still live there today. The isolation of the islands has allowed the community to maintain a distinctive and unique cultural identity, with a persistent African influence.

Their language, also called Gullah, is a creole of English and several West African tongues. It's also called Sea Island Creole English. Creoles are often mischaracterized as dialects at best or bastardizations at worst. Actually, they are fully developed languages, as sophisticated and rich as their linguistic parents. (Gullah is the language of the "Uncle Remus" stories.)

"Kumbaya" was originally pronounced in a way the Gullah would speak to say "Come by ya". It means "Come by here". It's literally asking God to come and help the singer.

The earliest known recording dates back to 1926 (listen to recording here). It appeared in printed form in the 1931 in "The Carolina Low Country". Almost certainly, its actual origin is much older.

The song was taken by American missionaries to Angola, where it became very popular. In the 50's the song became popular in the US after it was published by Lynn and Katherine Rohrbough (who thought it originally came from Africa). They published books of lyrics through the Cooperative Recreation Service of Delaware, Ohio. Then a group called The Folksmiths sang Kumbaya while touring summer camps in 1957. The haunting melody and mysterious, evocative lyrics charmed all listeners and it quickly spread across North America, where it has remained a beloved favorite ever since.

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Read more about the history of Kumbaya in the Folklife Center News.

You can also listen to the podcast Kumbaya: Stories of an African American Spiritual to learn more.

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Thanks to Farrin Oxhorn for the wonderful recording!

Thanks and Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the following people for helping me find information about "Kumbaya": Robert Molloy, John Hoffman , Perry P., Ray Good, Richard Conti, Melva Cooksey, Azizi Powell, and especially Jason Pomerantz, for all his research into the subject and Monique Palomares for creating the midi music.

Thank you very much!