Behind the Song: Kum ba Yah

Kum ba Yah is a spiritual song dating back to at least the 1920s, when the earliest known recordings took place.

Robert Winslow Gordon

Robert Winslow Gordon

According to the Library of Congress the two earliest versions were both collected in 1926.  Both of these versions now reside in the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

It is unknown when in 1926 either version was recorded so no one knows which was the first version recorded.

One of the copies was made by a student from Alliance, North Carolina, named Minnie Lee. This version is believed to have the lyrics but not melody written down.

The other was recorded on a wax cylinder by Robert Winslow Gordon {founder of the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song}.  The singer if this recording was H. Wyle from Darien, Georgia.

Someone's singing Lord

Someone’s singing Lord

In the late 1920s, a version was recorded from the South Carolina coast.  This version was sung in Gullah and called “Come by Yuh“. Thus the meaning for Kum ba Yah is considered Come by here.

The song was originally a simple appeal to God to come and help those in need.

The copyright and authorship claim belongs to Rev. Marvin V. Frey.  He claimed to write the song around 1936 under the title “Come by Here”.  He claimed that upon praying the words were delivered to him by a storefront evangelist in Portland, Oregon known as “Mother Duffin.”  He claimed to change the title to “Kum Ba Yah” in 1946, when a missionary family named

Someone's praying Lord

Someone’s praying Lord

Cunningham returned from Africa where they had sung Frey’s version. According to Frey, they brought back a partly translated version, and “Kum Ba Yah” was an African phrase from Angola (specifically in Luvale). Frey claimed the Cunningham’s then toured America singing the song with the text “Kum Ba Yah”.

While this version has circulated, it seems the song originated among the African American spirituals in the Southeastern United States.  The song most likely originated from an earlier Gullah version.

This song has been recorded by numerous artists over the years.

In the 1950s and 1960s it became a standard campfire song at summer camps and Scouting camps.

 

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