When I was barely a teenager, I was invited one summer to one of those all-city teen devotions that travels from church to church each week. (Do they still do those? That’s how you got to know the teens from other churches.) Anyway, on this particular night, we were actually in some big park, and there was a young man from Thailand giving the devotional talk. In the middle of his talk, he asked if any of us knew the song Kumbaya? No one knew it, so he taught it to us—as a song of mission.
His version of the song’s story was the one where the African missionary is on his way to some place when he hears natives by the river singing, “Kum ba yah, my Lord, Kum ba yah,” which he translated as, “Come by here, my Lord, come by here.”
Then each verse is a reason for the missionary to stop there: someone’s singing, someone’s praying, someone’s dying . . . . I think it was one of those songs to which you could add an endless number of verses.
It might have been three or four years before I went to any devotional after that where Kumbaya was NOT sung. It was that popular.
Of course, the early 60s were also the moment in musical history when folk music was the rage, so I’m pretty sure that Joan Baez recorded Kumbaya and a little later Peter, Paul, and Mary included it in their repertoire as well.
Most of the folk singers took spirituals or spiritual songs and presented them as political songs, most often about freedom. That’s what happened to Kumbaya. It went from being what we called a “devo song” to being a “camp song.”
Camp songs were the songs sung around the campfire, usually with an acoustic guitar—simple, not elaborate melodies, often pretty repetitive. Think of songs like Michael, Row the Boat Ashore or Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Anybody could play them, and everyone could sing them. We could sing them at Bible camp, but also at Boy Scout camp, Campfire Girls Camp, or YMCA camp.
The evolution to a camp song, however, pretty much assured that the song would no longer be appropriate as a “devo” song.
By the mid-90’s, cynicism in American politics overwhelmed the song, and suddenly Kumbaya became a symbol of a naïve innocence that was no longer viable reality. Listen to what Rick Santorum is quoted as saying in a 1994 statement addressing the idea of paying young people for national service:
Someone’s going to pick up trash in a park and sing ‘Kumbaya’ around a campfire, and you’re going to give them 90 percent of the benefits of the GI Bill! That’s a slap in the face to every person who put their butts on the line in a foreign country. … That’s not what America is all about.”
Within ten more years, the metaphor is firmly entrenched into the sarcastic rhetoric of politics, suggesting that the harmony and mindless unity of sitting around a campfire and singing Kumbaya is not unreal, but not the desired reality either!
NPR quoted the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently as saying,
“I don’t think that anybody expected or expects Washington to be a campfire where everybody holds hands together and sings ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Carney said. “That’s not what the nation’s business is about.”
We were watching the new Denzel Washington movie 2 Guns the other day when his character came out with something along the line of “We are not going to be able to kumbaya our way out of the mess we are in.” At the time, I thought to myself, “That poor song. Does anyone remember at all its original meaning and sentiment?”
But then I started feeling worse for a people who laugh and scoff at innocence, for a people who feel that contentiousness is a greater virtue than consensus, for people who can’t trust anyone, and have no one greater than they are to follow.
Is it empty nostalgia to long for simple faith, to hold “naïve” confidence in the goodness of other people, or to be willing to trust those who lead us?
If you are a Christian who finds yourself too disappointed, too disillusioned, or just too cynical to believe or trust or follow, you might want to hum a little Kumbaya, and think about where you are looking for goodness, for certainty, for truth, for trust. If you aren’t finding anything good where you are looking, then you are looking in the wrong place!
Try adding the words then to the melody of Kumbaya: “Come by here, Lord, come by here,” and make it your prayer.