Throughout his performing career Paul Robeson was fashioning an activist cultural theory to help to liberate his people and, increasingly, to support the cause of persecuted people everywhere.
His decision to sing the traditional songs of cultures in addition to his own—including songs in Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian—reflected his deepening and expanding identification with oppressed humanity irrespective of color.
This according to “‘I want to be African’: Paul Robeson and the ends of nationalist theory and practice, 1914–1945” by Sterling Stuckey (Massachusetts review XVII/1 [spring 1976] pp. 81–138; reprinted in Going through the storm: The influence of African American art in history (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 187–227).
Today is Robeson’s 120th birthday! Above, the singer, actor, and activist in 1942; below, singing Go down Moses, a classic African American spiritual—a genre that Robeson considered one of the finest examples of black artistic expression.
Having served as a beloved anthem during the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, Kumbaya now serves as an easy punch line in jokes about naïve idealism. Various theories regarding its provenance have circulated, including a report that it was collected by missionaries in Angola and a claim by Marvin V. Frey that he composed it in 1939.
Archival documents at the American Folklife Center illuminate the real story. The earliest known evidence of the song is in a manuscript sent by Julian Parks Boyd to the Archive’s founder, Robert W. Gordon, in 1927; Boyd had noted it from a former student the previous year (transcription above; click to enlarge). The song’s structure matches that of Kumbaya, and its refrain is “Lord, come by here”. Further archival evidence demonstrates that the song was well known among African Americans by the 1940s, and that dialect performances gradually transformed “come by here” to “kum ba ya”.
This according to “The world’s first Kumbaya moment: New evidence about an old song” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXII/3–4, pp. 3–10). Below, Joan Baez performs Kumbaya in France in 1980.