I think it was in 1982 that I saw Martin Frey live in concert. It was actually just an unannounced extra feature in a church service I went to one Sunday evening. He performed just a few numbers, the most memorable being a medley of his hit: “Come by Here” –– better known as “Kumbaya”. What I particularly remember is the irony of how the presumed writer of this classic song didn’t seem to get it.
It seems that when he was in his late teens and early 20s Frey was pretty hot stuff, but by the time I saw him he was a prim, dignified and distant retiree. The church in question was “non-denominational evangelical”, of the sort that fell into the range between “happy-clappy” and Falwellesque fundamentalism. In many respects Frey fit right in there, but he clearly wasn’t shopping for a new church for himself at that point. He was getting on in years, and he just stopped by sort of as a courtesy to the guest speaker who was on that night.
Frey was tall, angular and impressive in the confidence he exuded. As the old composer mounted the steps that ran the length of the stage he took a diagonal tack, keeping his wooden leg on the down-hill side, swinging it with a sort of ungainly elegance as he climbed. Settling in at the piano, he began to play in a high-handed hymnological style that was well suited to the other chorus he is fairly well known for: “Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is lord.” In some ways that song could have been the “Ice, Ice Baby” of the 1930s: It was fresh for its time, blending musical influences in a way that wasn’t entirely original but nor was it entirely cliché (yet). It had a catchy enough tune to get the audience slowly swaying along in time without realizing it, together with lyrics that gave listeners the comforting message that “Our brand kicks ass!”
For “Kumbaya”, however, that style didn’t really seem to fit, and that may or may not have been why Frey went into a rather lengthy a spiel to justify himself. He told of how in the post-war years a missionary family had taken the song book he had published in 1939 over to Africa, and how they had come back and done a big US concert tour where they had performed his original “Come by Here” and then gone on to say, “Now this is how the Africans sing it…”
So the song was the same as the one I learned in Cub Scouts, and yet it wasn’t the same; but it was enough the same for the courts that deal with copyrights and intellectual property issues to have determined that Frey was entitled to a good chunk of royalty money from all of the song book reprints and the Pete Seeger and Joan Baez recordings of it. That in turn generated more than enough cash for the retired revivalist piano banger to live on quite comfortably for the rest of his days. And in this regard Frey had no apologies: he was in a modestly comfortable position, his work had become internationally recognized as something outstanding and he felt quite entitled to the acknowledgement.
Frey died of heart problems about 10 years later, and in the years since then his claim to authorship has been seriously questioned. Recordings of an earlier version of the same song from well before Frey’s time have come to light, leaving 3 basic possibilities: 1) The subsequently recovered recordings are forgeries. (Remember Willie Nelson’s role in “Wag the Dog”?) 2) Frey cynically stole a song written by some forgotten old black composer and cynically claimed credit for it; or then 3) What Frey thought was his original composition was actually borrowed from a subconscious memory of black worship music he had been exposed to as a child.
Given that I am prone to dismiss conspiracy theories and think the best of people whenever possible, I’d be prone to believe that last alternative, but frankly it makes very little difference to me. The point I’m making is that this song has always had an element of limited cross-cultural understanding to it, which is part of its beauty. Let me keep working on unpacking that.
The current theory is that the song in question originally arose as a spontaneous composition in the process of collective worship among speakers of the Gullah dialect, on the sea islands off the coast of Georgia in the southeast US. That in itself has its own fascination for me. Gullah is something that I had first heard about from my high school English teacher, who had lived most of his life in the southern states and had a certain fascination both with extreme dialects and with the writings of Mark Twain. To give us a flavor of the dialect that MT was trying to capture in “Huckleberry Finn” among other places, he played a recording for us of a lecture on Gullah given by a white anthropologist from Georgia. Among other tales I remember from that recording there was one where a young street minstrel mistook the academic for a tourist and offered to do a little song and dance performance for him. To this he replied in dialect, “Be gone whicha boy.” The boy’s eyes suddenly widened with fear and he as he muttered to himself, “Oooo laudy! Dat be unna we-people!”
I’m not sure how much those lessons have had to do with it, but in the years since I’ve had a continuous fascination with the challenge of understanding what people who speak very differently from myself have been trying to say to me, and to each other –– especially when they are speaking what is theoretically a version of my same language. The most difficult English-speakers for me to understand thus far have been the Northern Irish Ulstermen, but a close second would be the various dialects I’ve encountered down here in South Africa. Among the Cape Malay and the Xhosa speakers I honestly can’t always tell whether or not the people next to me in the shop or on the train are speaking English. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. I suppose part of it is a matter of training my ear again to follow the local idioms and way of speaking, but many of their vowel sounds and variations on the r really don’t match up that well with the way the rest of the world speaks English.
So from this perspective in a way it is understandable to me, and at the same time sweetly ironic, to think of how many millions of Americans over the years have sat around campfires singing “Kumbaya” without a clue that they were singing in English, just with a heavy Angolan accent. Even more ironic is the fact that the white missionaries who taught this tune to the Angolans, and who brought their version of it back to the United States, didn’t have a clue that it was a “black song” to begin people with, originally sung by an entirely different group with their own very heavily Africanized accent.
So with all that said, who’s to say what the song is “really talking about”? And has the meaning of the song further changed with all of the American right wing cynics and blow-hards who use it as a mocking label for those who are naively seeking for peace and mutual understanding? Let me explain how I see it at least.
Let’s start with what the lyrics are actually saying. It’s a simple prayer, of a very Christian sort, but one which could be prayed by anyone who believes in a merciful and benevolent God that can be referred to as “Lord”. In some ways it has the same inter-religious appeal as Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting “The Golden Rule” with its scripture quote, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” emblazoned in block capital letters across the mixed crowd of worshipers from different races and faiths. Any faith which believes that there is a god out there who cares enough to listen to our prayers should also believe that mercy must be part of this God’s character, and if we want to experience that mercy we should also be ready to show it to others. But this song doesn’t take the sermon on morality that far even. It’s just a cry to God to make His presence known.
The particular reasons for asking God to come by aren’t explicitly stated. In the most popular version we have verses in which someone is in turns laughing, crying, praying and singing. One theory is that these are phases in a personal crisis: laughing when things are going well, blissfully unaware of the problems ahead; crying when the crisis hits; praying while seeking a resolution, and then singing when the light at the end of the tunnel comes into sight. Or then it could just be a matter of randomly expressing basic human experiences in which a sense of divine help and companionship can be reassuring.
Whatever the case, knowing that we need that little bit of help from above every now and again helps keep us in our place, in many senses of the term. “Our place” is knowing that we are not completely self-sufficient, nor were even the strongest of us ever designed to be. “Our place” is recognizing that we’re all in a state of vulnerability, and therefore we are not justified in taking unfair advantage of the vulnerability of others. “Our place” is being part of something greater than ourselves, and being thankful for such an opportunity in life. That is where a sense of needing God is supposed to keep us.
I’m not going to re-hash my arguments here over whether there is a God, or which religion(s) have the right picture of that God. As I’ve said before, if God is as big as they say (regardless of which “they” you happen to be listening to) then He should be able to prove his existence to you without me having to take care of it. But maybe He doesn’t want to give you absolute rational proof on the matter, because a bit of uncertainty might be just what you need to keep you “in your place” in these sorts of ways.
Among virtual philosophical friends last week we batting around old Bertrand Russell quotes, including, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Someone went on to point out that there is a fancy technical name for such a phenomenon these days: the Dunning–Kruger effect. You might say then that “Kumbaya” is a demonstration of the Dunning–Kruger effect on a spiritual and/or interpersonal level: When it comes to spiritual matters those who are filled with uncertainties, and who realize that sometimes they just don’t get it, actually tend to “get it” a lot more than those who think they’ve got everything figured out.
There’s an African word (don’t ask me which African language it comes from) that can be applied in a vast number of interpersonal situations: “ubuntu”. Ubuntu is sort of shorthand for saying that we all have to recognize the extent to which we are part of each other on a day-to-day basis. It’s sort of like John Donne’s “no man is an island” thing only without the same British snootiness in tone. Whatever the case, it seems that many of the folkies that brought “kumbaya” into style in the 50s and 60s actually thought that it was an indigenous African term with the same sort of meaning as ubuntu. Etymologically they couldn’t have been much further off, but in terms of practical application they came surprisingly close to what the lyric is saying. The point is not to convert each other to our own versions of the truth, but to recognize our mutual state of relative ignorance and helplessness in the big scheme of things, and to come together in seeking help from above on such a basis.
The ones who really don’t get it are those that somehow consider empathy to be a personal weakness, and who take singing Kumbaya to be emblematic of such weakness. Those with such an attitude could be taken for followers of Nietzsche, but I doubt that many of them have actually taken the trouble to read anything so heavy. More likely they saw the same old advertisement I did for a demolition derby –– “Pity is an illness!” –– and they decided to apply that as a philosophy for the rest of their lives as well. Consequently they’ve come to consider psychopathology and social polarization as virtues in place of sympathy and solidarity. Show me a political commentator who uses “Kumbaya” as a term of derision and I’ll show you someone with serious problems in this direction.
But of course this is just my take. Martin Frey’s take on the song was entirely different. He never set out to write (or pass on) a civil rights anthem for the hippies and such. He just wanted to get the folks he performed for on the revival circuit psyched up about their standing as Christians. The other uses for “his song” were unintended consequences –– collateral damage if you will –– even if they did go a long ways in helping to pay the bills. So if the fellow who had the longest standing credit for writing the song didn’t give it the same meaning I do, who am I to claim that I am right and he was wrong in its interpretation?
Then again, having the only right interpretation here, or even the best one, isn’t all that important to me. I’d just like to remain firm in my belief that there’s someone out there who cares about me enough to come by when I call, and to share the sense of connection which that entails with anyone else who wants to sing along. So… who has a guitar ready?