The campfire classic Kumbaya has a fascinating history. For many years, it was thought that the song originated in Angola. It turns out, though, that it is actually 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 descendents 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. 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.)

In Gullah, "Kumbaya" means "Come by here", so the lyric could be translated as "Come by here, my lord, come by here."

Recordings of the song are known to have been made in the 1920's and it appeared in printed form in the 30's. Almost certainly, its actual origin is much older.

The song was taken by American missionaries to Angola, where it became very popular. Meanwhile, it was mostly forgotten in the States. Then, in the 50's and 60's, it was rediscovered in Africa, where it was thought to have originated. 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.



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!