3 February 2017
Kumbaya, my Lord — the prayer from the progressive wilderness
Kumbaya my Lord roughly translates as Come by here, my Lord. It was a powerful song during the 1950–1990 folk music revival, which is when I first heard it. Many artists — Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Seekers, Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Soweto Gospel Choir, to name a few — recorded it. Then, reports Steven Winick, somehow “Kumbaya” became a derisive word:
…from the 1980s through the 2000s, the song experienced a backlash. Musically, it came to be thought of as a children’s campfire song, too simple or too silly for adults to bother with. Politically, it became shorthand for 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. These recent attitudes toward the song are unfortunate, since the original is a beautiful example of traditional music, dialect, and creativity. However, the song’s recent fall from grace has at least added some colorful metaphors to American political discourse, such phrases as “to join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” which means to ignore our differences and get along (albeit superficially), and “Kumbaya moment,” an event at which such naïve bonding occurs.
I think the desperation of American progressives, now lost in a political wilderness from which they may not escape during my lifetime, may restore the dignity and power of Kumbaya as a prayer and anthem of enlightened solidarity and hope. Here’s the New London Chorale’s stirring performance of the song.