The rich Georgia Gullah Geechee roots of the spiritual ‘Kumbaya’

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations and songs like Kumbaya that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

NOTE: During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

Griffin Lotson, a seventh-generation Gullah-Geechee, grew up on the old spirituals that sprang from the suffering and hope of African Americans.

As a child, he listened to his mother and others in the congregation of Carneghan Emanuel Baptist Church in Darien sing “Come by Here,” a haunting hymn that beseeches God to help those in need, perhaps as a call to those who are oppressed, dying or sick.

“Come by here, my Lord, come by here.

Come by here, my Lord, come by here.

Come by here, my Lord, come by here.

Oh Lord, come by here.”

It wasn’t until 2011, as a middle-aged adult, that Lotson started digging deep into the song’s history and meaning.

“It meant zero to me growing up,” said Lotson, 65, Darien’s former mayor pro tem, vice chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, and manager of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters.

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Once he started researching the song, though, “I really went down the rabbit’s hole,” he said. “There was a direct connection to enslaved African Americans, the Gullah Geechee culture and even my own family. This song means a lot. It’s one of the most known songs in the world.”

Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. (Contributed by the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters)

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The language in “Come by Here” over time evolved into the more popular “Kumbaya.” It’s also sometimes called “Come by Ya.” Ya, said Lotson, is commonly used in the Gullah Geeche culture for “here.”

“Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya

Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya

Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya

Oh Lord, kumbaya”

The modern version has been popularized at civil rights events and by such performers as Joan Baez; Pete Seeger; Sweet Honey in the Rock; Peter, Paul & Mary; and the Australian folk, pop and gospel group The Seekers.

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It’s also heard at Girl Scout campouts, youth gatherings, and outdoor Protestant religious revivals known as camp meetings.

In 2017, “Kumbaya” was recognized as Georgia’s first state historical song through a resolution sponsored by state Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick) as a nod to its roots in the Gullah Geechee culture along the Georgia coast and the Sea Islands.

U.S. Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) also acknowledged that the song most likely originated in the Gullah Geechee culture.

Others trace its origins to West Africa, although most likely it was the other way around with missionaries taking the spiritual to Africa.

“Even today, ‘Kumbaya’ means something different to different groups of people, but we should never forget the original meaning of the song and who we believe may be the original creators of the song, the Gullah Geechee people,” Carter said in his comments to Congress when talking about the song. “There are many aspects of their culture that are unique, complex, and beautiful. Their language is based in creole and is the only distinctly African creole language in the United States.”

The question of who composed the song has been debated for decades.

In 1970, a white preacher from New York took credit for penning the spiritual, said John Fenn, head of research and programs at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, but that is in “deep question.”

He claimed to have written the song at the age of 18 in 1936.

Strangely, as popular as the spiritual was, no one else had claimed composition of the song.

What is known is that according to historical accounts and the resolution, folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon lived in Darien in 1926 and traveled the area to record folk songs in the Gullah dialect.

Henry Wylie (also referred to as H. Wylie), who was of Gullah Geechee heritage, was recorded singing "Come by Here," said Stephen Winick, a folklorist at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and editor and creator of the blog "Folklife Today."

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The song’s history fascinated Winick, who became the folklorist version of Sherlock Holmes.

He recalled that Seeger had publicly mentioned several times that he had heard a wax cylinder of the song. In 2007, during a symposium to honor the Seeger family, Winick had a chance to ask the famous singer where he had heard the cylinder.

His answer? “Here, at the Library of Congress.”

It wasn’t the first time there had been rumblings of the cylinder’s existence, but no one was able to find it.

Then Winick, with the help of two archivists, struck gold. They located the first recording, which helped set the record straight.

For his part, Lotson recalls the time he held the original wax cylinder in his hands.

“It was the eureka moment,” he said. “It was touching real history. This dispelled all the myths. There it was, just sitting there.”

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The National Archives at Atlanta partnered with the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society, Metro Atlanta Chapter and Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County on a program that celebrated African American history. The event included food, an exhibition on artifacts of enslavement, storytelling and various presentations including one by the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. ANA LAURA ARAYA/Special

According to the Library of Congress, in later years, use of the word “kumbaya” came to take on political and cultural symbolism meaning “weak consensus-seeking that fails to accomplish crucial goals. Socially, it came to stand for the touchy-feely, the wishy-washy, the nerdy, and the meek.”

That bothers Lotson.

“It came to mean something bad, and I will never use the words ‘a kumbaya moment,” he said. “I know the true meaning and I know the history. I won’t use it in a condescending way.”

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Oral Moses, professor emeritus of voice and music literature at Kennesaw State University, is an expert on African American music and traces his family history to the South Carolina coast.

Moses recently returned from a recital in Germany, and one of the songs he performed there was “Kumbaya.”

“‘Kumbaya’ is worldwide,” said Moses, who is also artistic director of the Georgia Spiritual Ensemble. “They know that song in China, they know that song in Germany, they know that song in Russia. That song brings about unity, peace and a sense of really working together. There’s nothing negative about that.”

Black History Month

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.

This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.

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