The next time someone says, “We don’t need a Kum ba Yah moment,” tell them, “I think we do.”
Musicians who did not know how to play Kum ba Yah were once afraid to take their guitars to camp. Many of us remember sitting in front of a crackling fire, trying to find the distance at which our front side was not about to burst into flames and our backside was not frozen. At a deep Kum ba Yah level, the warmth of the fire was catching. Singing “Someone’s praying, Lord” felt like praying, “Someone’s crying, Lord” felt like shared sorrow, and “Someone’s singing, Lord,” felt like hope. Lots of us felt that way—and we thought it was cool to sing an African song—even if that was not actually the case.
I learned Kum ba Yah with hand motions. You can guess the movements for “Someone’s praying,” “Someone’s crying,” and “Someone’s singing.” I wrote new lyrics for which the motions write themselves: “Someone’s fishing, Lord,” “Someone’s itching, Lord,” and “Someone’s bowling, Lord.”
Children of the sixties sang Kum ba Yah with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Joan Baez’ version included the stanza, “No more wars, my Lord.” Raffi recorded it for his Baby Beluga album. There is a mashup involving Ozzy Osbourne that is not helpful, and a rap metal version Kumba Yo! that ministers cannot recommend. Lots of singers have pleaded for God to “Come by here.”
We do not know who to thank for Kum ba Yah. One story is that Rev. Martin Frey of New York wrote Come by Here in 1939 and taught it to an eleven-year-old boy. The boy’s missionary family carried it to Africa where it was put into the Angolan dialect and brought back to the United States. The problem is that no word close to Kum ba Yah exists in any language spoken in Angola.
Versions of the song were recorded in South Carolina as early as 1926. The phrase “Kum ba yah” may be a Gullah version of “Come by here.” The first ones to sing “Someone’s crying, Lord” were African Americans suffering under Jim Crow. (Indefensibly, most hymnals continue to give Martin Frey credit.)
When people mention Kum ba Yah today it is usually with cynicism. An African American spiritual in which hurting people plead for God’s help has been turned into a term of derision. You have to wonder if racism is at work when someone says “I’m not interested in holding hands and singing Kum ba Yah.”
Our culture tends to denigrate compassion. To join hands and sing Kum ba Yah is to pray together asking God to care for the hurting. Who decided it was helpful to mock the longing for God or the history of an oppressed people? Far from pretending everything is fine, Kum ba Yah springs from a much-tested faith. Someone’s crying and yet they are still strong enough to sing.
In the civil rights era, Kum ba Yah was a call to action. Kum ba Yah is now shorthand for hopefulness that should not be trusted. A song about looking to God for courage is laughed at for being naïve.
I have grown weary of the way our culture considers cynicism smart and optimism naïve. We have more than enough skepticism, sarcasm, and negativism. We need more compassion, warmth and hopefulness. We need to debate less and care more. We need to impress each other not with how many facts we know, but with how honest we are about what we are feeling.
The older I get the more I long for Kum ba Yah moments. I have spent years learning to be suspicious of warm feelings. Now I ache for genuine love.
We do not need sharper reasoning nearly so much as we need new hearts. When we get tired of words, we need to pray for God to fill our souls. We need hope that pushes bitterness away.
Last weekend at our church retreat, we sat around a campfire and sang Kum ba Yah. It felt real, and the s’mores were delicious.