At this moment in history when we may need it most, "Kumbaya," a folk song that started its life as a quiet prayer and became a spiritual rallying cry for millions during some of this nation's grimmest days, has morphed into something that couldn't have been imagined during your Boy or Girl Scout days: a kind of metaphorical sneer at the service of politicians, pundits and the CAPS LOCK cognoscenti of the blogosphere (OK, me included).
Decades ago, the song "Kumbaya" (alternatively spelled "Kum Ba Yah") first became part of the national songbook as a call to peace. Since then, the message and meaning has been twisted into something altogether different. Derision of the song and its emotional foundation has become a required sign of toughness and pragmatism in American politics today, and this is especially true since the Sept. 11 attacks. That's a little sad, or a lot, depending on your point of view.
That journey from folk anthem to butt of jokes has been strange and singular, with murky origins. Some have said the song synonymous with s'mores around the campfire has origins as a Gullah spiritual (the title is said to mean "come by here" in the Gullah tongue). Some recordings of it were made in the 1920s; published versions appeared in the 1930s.
Wikipedia says the song, titled "Come By Here," first appeared in a collection by musicologist Robert Winslow Gordon in 1936, and in "Revival Choruses of Marvin V. Frey," a lyric sheet printed in Portland, Ore. in 1939. In 1946, the song returned from Africa with a family of American missionaries who toured the United States performing it.
After a long gestation, the song achieved prominence in the United States some time in the 1950s, its pacifist spirit dovetailing with the rise of the folk-music movement. It was recorded by Pete Seeger; the Folksmiths; the Weavers; the Seekers; Peter, Paul & Mary and Joan Baez during the 1950s and 1960s, becoming a staple of the protest rallies of the Civil Rights Movement.
Oh, how things have changed. In November 2004, on the day that the William J. Clinton Presidential Library opened in Little Rock, Ark., Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly interviewed Geraldo Rivera. "It was a wonderful day, Bill, and I think we should put aside these issues of what was in, what was left out," Rivera said. "The fact of the matter is you had President Carter, first President Bush, the current president, all of the first ladies …"
Now did you sing 'Kumbaya'?" O'Reilly asked.
In the summer of 2004, Townhall columnist and radio talk show host Doug Giles made some comments about radical Islam. "They want us exterminated. … That said, what do we, Christians in particular, do when faced with an implacable radical enemy? Just sit around, sing 'Kum Ba Yah' and hope these bad guys will leave us alone?"
In 2006, condemning the impotence of the church preceding the rise of Nazism in pre-WWII Germany, Giles commented: "The German Church, which should have been a major player in defying Nazism, instead kum-ba-yah'd their way into Stupidville…"
In July of this year, in a condemnation of Sen. Barack Obama's courting of the evangelical right, Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council, another conservative evangelical group, told CNN that "talking about faith issues is not about singing 'Kumbaya' … It's about the public policies the person is going to put in place."
Even the current political beneficiary of the song's original spirit, Obama, has used it to his own devices. In October 2007, in a bid to clearly delineate differences between his own policies and those of Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama said the idea that he and Clinton were "holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'" on political issues was wrong.
Maybe the corruption of "Kumbaya" is a sign of the rudeness at the root of the current political discourse, or it's just proof of what happens to something in the culture—anything in the culture—that's been around long enough.
Or maybe it's an indication that without the personal compass we lost on the trail years ago … we can't find that campfire anywhere.
Michael E. Ross is a West Coast journalist who blogs frequently on politics, pop culture and race matters at Culchavox; and is a periodic contributor to PopMatters. His writing has appeared in msnbc.com, The Loop, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times.