Kumbaya would never have become a left-wing political anthem if a folklore buff hadn't lugged wax cylinders to the Sea Islands and recorded the song in 1928.
Robert Winslow Gordon recorded folk songs on the Georgia coast, the California waterfront and in the Appalachian Mountains to preserve and study them. He recorded a thousand cylinders and collected songs from old camp-meeting and revival songbooks, broadsides, folios, and hillbilly recordings.
He wanted to know everything there was to know about American folk songs. In the process of finding out, he brought little-known songs into the mainstream, songs like The Midnight Special, The Old Gray Mare, The Hesitation Blues and Casey Jones.
Kumbaya, his most famous recording, became a part of the Library of Congress archives and then a popular record during the folk revival that peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. And then, like Robert Winslow Gordon, Kumbaya undeservedly fell from grace.
Robert Winslow Gordon was born in Bangor, Maine, on September 2, 1888, a descendant of Alexander Gordon who arrived in the colonies in 1652 as a political prisoner. Robert became interested in folklore while he studied at Harvard.
In 1912, he married Roberta Peter Paul of Darien, Ga., and they had a daughter, Roberta. In 1917, he moved the family to California after he accepted a job at the University of California at Berkeley as an assistant English professor.
Gordon strayed from the classroom, collecting songs from the stevedores, sailors, ship captains, hoboes, and convicts on the waterfronts of Oakland and San Francisco. His colleagues found him unorthodox.
He edited a column called ‘Old Songs That Men Have Sung’ in a pulp magazine called Adventure. Gordon published songs his readers asked for and in turn asked for suggestions from all over the country. The English Department at Berkeley thought his column unscholarly. Academic politics finally cost him his job.
Gordon was almost 40 and nearly broke. He cobbled together some money and freelance work and moved with his wife and daughter to a two-room shack in Darien, Ga. With his wax cylinders he roamed the Sea Islands and recorded African-American folksongs, chants, shouts, spirituals, and shanteys.
One of Gordon’s best sources for songs was Mary C. Mann, a deaconess in the Episcopal Church who ran a school for African-American girls preparing to work as domestic service.
It was a man named H. Wylie, though, who sang Kumbaya into Gordon’s hand-cranked wax cylinder in 1928. The word “Kumbaya” is shorthand for “Come by here.” The song Kumbaya was a spiritual request for the Lord to ‘come by here’ and intervene in their troubles. (To hear a ‘Come By Here’ version of the song, click here.)
Kumbaya at the Library of Congress
In 1928, Gordon got a privately funded job at the Library of Congress, where he installed his song collection in the library’s attic and became the first director of the Archive of American Folk Song. He continued collecting songs in Georgia, but his Library bosses thought he should work out of Washington, D.C. He moved to Washington, but he began experimenting with a disc recorder and traveled to mountain cabins in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia to collect new songs. His bosses wanted to know where he was.
Finally, the Depression put an end to his Archive’s funding and Robert Gordon lost his job. He spent the rest of his career teaching English at George Washington University and editing technical publications. He died on March 26, 1961.
In the 1930s, Pete Seeger interned at the Archive of American Folk Song and heard Gordon’s recording of Kumbaya. Seeger and then others recorded Kumbaya: the Weavers, the Folksmiths, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary. Manda Djinn in France, Joan Orleans in Germany and the Seekers in Australia.
It became a favorite of war protesters, at summer camp sing-alongs and at Folk Masses. Over time it lost much of its original power and become a ‘pallid pop sing along,’ a snarky shorthand for ridiculing weak-minded consensus building, an old lefty anthem.
Robert Winslow Gordon’s archive became the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Fifty years after Gordon started the Archive, the Library of Congress issued an LP of folksongs he collected called Folk Songs of America. The album was reissued 25 years later as a CD and on the Internet. To listen to songs from Gordon’s collection at the Library of Congress, click here.