Tracing The History Of ‘Kumbaya,’ Back To Gullah Geechee – Decade-Long Research Efforts By Griffin Lotson

A seventh-generation Gullah Geechee, Griffin Lotson, along with others, started digging up the history of a song titled, “Kumbaya” in the year 2012. The group has since then immersed itself deeply into the research. Their hard work and years of research led to the recognition of the song’s origin, meaning in Congress. On January 1, 2020, Griffin Lotson, the national vice-chairman and former treasurer of the federal Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, published a book that mentions the details about the song’s origin with evidence. It is a milestone in the movement of spreading the word about the ancient culture of ‘slaves.’

From churches to campfires, and from protests to singing for pleasure, people have been chanting ‘Kumbaya’ since the past few decades. When it comes to folk music, this is one of the most popular and oldest songs that the world knows of today. Joan Baez, Nanci Griffith, Raffi, Joan Orleans, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Manda Djinn are some of the artists that have recorded their own versions of this song. The United States, France, Germany, and Australia, Kumbaya, is a song that is known all across the world. It is a well-known song that brings comfort and peace to people.

Despite its worldwide popularity, not many people are aware of its origin. It is widely believed that the song was written by Rev. Marvin V. Frey, a white evangelist in the year 1936. There is a marker placed near his gravesite, which still advances his claim to the authorship of “Kum Ba Ya.” However, there is a group of people who did not stop researching the origin of the song, and these were the Gullah Geechee descendants. Gullah Geechee were slaves, that were brought to the American land from West Africa as slaves. They form a major part of American history.

Tracing the History of Kumbaya

Born on June 20, 1954, in Crescent, Georgia, Griffin Lotson is an African-American who is a descendent of the Gullah Geechee people. He used to ring shout with his grandfather, one of the oldest black American traditions that are practiced until today on the land of North America. The young Griffin accompanied his mother to the congregation of Carneghan Emanuel Baptist Church & Sams Memorial Church of God in Christ. It was here when he first heard the song, “Come by Here.” During his childhood, he did not feel any attachment to the song as he was always taught to abandon his ancestral culture and dialect. Realization struck him in the year 2012 when he returned to Georgia from Washington about how abandoning his origin would cause his ancestral culture to vanish from the face of this earth.

Since then, he immersed himself into research over Gullah Geechee. He started his research with the song, that was claimed to be written by a white evangelist who was influenced by a prayer he heard in Oregon.

In the year 2018, a discovery at the American Folklife Center Archive at the Library of Congress by and with the help of Griffin Lotson helped clear out the misconceptions about the origin of the song. A manuscript and a cylinder recording were discovered which helped in disregarding the Frey’s claim over the song’s lyrics. The manuscript was created by Robert Winslow Gordon in the year 1927, the founder of AFC. The mention of the song in his manuscript was collected by Robert from a student, Minnie Lee, in 1926. The title mentioned in the manuscript was, “Oh, Lord, Won’t You Come by Here.” The cylinder recording found at AFC features the original voice of H. Wylie. He belonged to the Gullah Geechee people. The accent of Gullah Geechee was different, which is why the phrase “Come by Here” sounds like “Kumbaya.” 

Darien Mayor Pro Tem, Griffin Lotson, asked Sen. William Ligon, R-St. Simons Island, to offer a resolution with an emphasis on the song. He introduced the resolution due to which ‘Kumbaya’ was recognized as Georgia’s first state historical song.

The extensive research on the song by Griffin and other Gullah Geechee descendants is helping in the revival of a culture that was on the verge of fading away forever. Like all other Gullah Geechee descendants, even Griffin was asked to blend with the Americans by abandoning his ancestral culture. He did try to pretend to be like everyone else when he was working in Washington. It was not until he was 40 years old that he realized it was his responsibility to preserve a culture that was born on the American land. He serves as the manager of Ring Shouters, a nationally acclaimed group, and is working tirelessly to spread this practice among the younger generation of the country. His book, “Kumbaya,” is one of the most notable contributions in the revival of the Gullah Geechee culture.