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Kumbaya, I’m Stealing Your Song

The weather is changing. The days are lengthening. My thoughts are returning to the outdoors after a long hibernation away from Portland, Oregon’s rainy days of winter.

Let’s go camping!

We’ve got our tent, our sleeping bags, hotdogs, s’mores, and everything else we’ll need. The camp is set up around the fire pit and now, as the sun sets, what comes to mind but that old campfire classic; “Kumbaya”.

As it turns out, its controversal history is tied to Portland.

Reverend Marvin V. Frey, (1918-1992) claimed to have composed the song, originally entitled “Come By Here”, in 1936 after hearing a prayer delivered by a storefront evangelist named “Mother Duffin” in Portland. This contradicted research showing that sometime between 1922 and 1931 the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals added the song, under the name “Come By Heah”, to its catalog. It was sung in Gullah, a creole pidgin dialect that was spoken by the former slaves of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. The first four recordings of the song were made on wax cylinder by the founder of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, Robert Winslow Gordon, between 1926 and 1928.

In 1939 Rev. Frey included the song in his collection of lyric sheets, Revival Choruses of Marvin V. Frey (printed in Portland, OR) and later claimed the change in the title to “Kum Ba Ya” came through a missionary family returning from Africa in 1946 but “no scholar has ever found an indigenous word ‘kumbaya’ with a relevant meaning” to the song, according to the liner notes to a 1959 album by a singer named Pete Seeger.

So, when you’re strumming your guitar around the campfire this summer don’t picture the happy hippies of the 1960’s who popularized it as a peace-loving anthem. Instead, picture the good Rev. Frey capitalizing on a slave’s song of hope.

Pete Seeger’s version of Kumbaya:

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