Rush Limbaugh won’t buy that preposterous tripe Hillary Clinton is selling about an America united by shared and everlasting values. On his show recently, Limbaugh expectorated: “This whole notion of working together, bringing the country together? We’re way past that. … There’s no candidate out there that can forge a kumbaya.”
Hang on, forge a kumbaya? Like, in a smithy? “Kumbaya”—a spiritual first acquired by the Library of Congress in 1926 (though the song existed before then, in the Creole communities along the watery hem of South Carolina and Georgia)—has drifted far from its roots.
Limbaugh is not the only one making this staple of American folk music into a pejorative symbol. Former Apprentice contestant Omarosa threatened protesters at Donald Trump rallies not to expect “a hug or kumbaya.” And anti-kumbaya sentiment crosses the aisle: In 2015, President Obama challenged the insinuation that petty personal conflicts were preventing him from brokering a peace deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “This can’t be reduced to somehow a matter of let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Obama said, to illustrate the complexity of the situation. At outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s farewell dinner, the U.S. Ambassador John Bolton quipped that “no one sang Kumbaya.” (Annan’s retort, when he heard of Bolton’s joke: “Does he know how to sing it?”) Even in the Disney hit Zootopia, a jaded fox belittles the film’s naïve bunny hero for dreaming that in the titular city, “predators and prey live together in harmony and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ ”
On Twitter, kumbaya has been verbified; it means to enter into a witless-but-euphonious alliance:
Or it connotes wishful, simplistic blindness to reality, especially in the political sphere:
Poor “Kumbaya”! Though it’s emerged as a metaphor for thumb-sucking cooperation, the song isn’t even about friendship or diversity. Instead, its lyrics, drawn from the Gullah dialect of former slaves living along the Southern coast, urge God to kum ba yah, or “come by here.” Kumbaya: a plea for divinity to move once more among the living. How did this simple, sincere folk tune become the receptacle for so much scorn and cynicism?
The Rev. Marvin V. Frey claimed that he composed “Kumbaya” in New York City during the 1930s.* Like a lot of white guys who assert ownership of black musical traditions, he was either lying or mistaken; later he explained he was “inspired” by a storefront evangelist he’d heard chanting the lyrics—Come by here. Somebody needs salvation, Lord—in Portland, Oregon. Frey’s copyrighted version of the tune appeared in hymnals and songbooks. In 1956, it entered the Rohrbough Inventory, a compilation of stock melodies for camps and scouts distributed throughout the country.
“Kumbaya” became classic bonfire repertoire for America’s wilderness-taming youth. Some of those youth grew up to sing protest music. Former Boy Scout Joe Hickerson of the Folksmiths recorded “Kumbaya” in 1957; Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary weren’t far behind. According to NPR, “political activists latched on to the cohesive, easy-to-sing-while-swaying-and-locked-arm-in-arm charisma” of the ditty:
In 1966, student protesters in Gary, Ind., reacting to the city’s corruption and crime, altered the usual lyrics to fit their concerns: Gary’s troubled, my Lord, Kumbaya. In 1977, Gov. Edmund Brown of California sang the song with California Conservation Corps trainees at a camp 75 miles north of Los Angeles. In 1980, protesters crooned it at a candlelight vigil in Middletown, Pa., marking one year since the nuclear disaster at nearby Three Mile Island.
It wasn’t until the early ‘80s that people started invoking the old hymn satirically, as an emblem of childish idealism or liberal softness. According to an “extensive (and we do mean extensive) search of databases of newspapers, magazines, and other sources” conducted by the Dallas Morning News in 2006, the first printed instance of “Kumbaya” mockery might date to a 1985 movie review in the Washington Post. Critic Rita Kempley wrote: “Tom Hanks and John Candy make war on the Peace Corps in Volunteers, a belated lampoon of ‘60s altruism and the idealistic young Kumbayahoos who went off to save the Third World.”
Had Reagan’s Moral Majority grown weary of all the hippies? Did the passivity of the song’s lyrics strain the nerves of up-by-your-bootstraps boomers? (Note how many contemptuous citations imagine folks “sitting around and singing ‘Kumbaya’ ” rather than getting up and getting a job.) Whatever it was, the floodgates were open. Comedian Joe Queenan wrote a 1989 essay called “If I Had a Hammer…I’d Smash Their Guitars,” in which he confessed that hearing “Kumbaya” sent chills of annoyance down his spine. A deceased character in the movie Heathers confides, “My afterlife is so boring. If I have to sing ‘Kumbaya’ one more time I will spew burrito chunks.” The Christian Science Monitor, then-senatorial candidate Rick Santorum, and the singing group the Capitol Steps all partook in the Kumbayacklash.
Fast-forward to 2012, when a disparaging reference to “Kumbaya” served as a secret handshake for hardheaded Republican presidential nominees (and former nominees). Mike Huckabee told ABC News that “There’s not going to be some magic moment at which three or four of these people sit around a campfire toasting marshmallows, singing ‘Kumbaya’ and giving the nod to one of their competitors.”
Rick Perry said: “If you’re looking for somebody that’s going to say, ‘Hey listen we’re not going to make it hard on you, it’s all going to work it out, and it’s just, you know, “Kumbaya,” ’ I’m not your guy.”
Added Herman Cain at a Chicago Tea Party rally: “Singing ‘Kumbaya’ is not a foreign policy strategy.”
But in the 2016 primaries, it’s the people and not the candidates who are more worried about spineless compromise. Republicans leery of Trump’s dealmaking have slammed him as a “Kumbaya” politician—too eager to “reach across the aisle” and glad-hand the opposition. Of course, Trump supporters have cleaved to the front-runner precisely because he doesn’t seem like the kumbaya type.
Perhaps we could use a little more “Kumbaya” in our political lives. Once, the hymn summoned God to the scene of suffering. At sit-ins and demonstrations, it intertwined with fervent calls for social change. It embodied the liberal virtues of empathy and conciliation. But a beautiful and glorious folk song reaching for the divine has been dragged down to earth by the pettiness of human beings. A bunch of losers have wussified it, cut it down to size. Make Kumbaya great again.
*Correction, March 29, 2016: This post originally misidentified Marvin V. Frey as Martin V. Frey.