Someone's mocking, Lord, kumbaya!

kumbayaEvery now and then, it's OK for experienced, skilled journalistic specialists to let their hair down and have a little fun. Fun is good. Readers like fun. On the religion beat, fun that is linked to real people and their real lives in real religious groups can be really fun and can even link up to big issues that are more than fun. Does that make sense?

Exhibit A for me at the moment is Dallas Morning News religion writer Jeffrey Weiss' insightful romp through the musical history of the evangelical epic known to the world as "Kumbaya." The only problem is that the old campfire classic has, over time, morphed into something else -- a kind of all-purpose sarcastic three-chord joke with which to beat hyper-sincere people over the head. The headline is blunt: "How did 'Kumbaya' become a mocking metaphor?"

You know the song, right? Everybody hold hands and sing along.

Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya! Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya! Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya! O Lord, kumbaya!

Someone's laughing, Lord, kumbaya! Someone's laughing, Lord, kumbaya! Someone's laughing, Lord, kumbaya! O Lord, kumbaya!

Someone's crying, Lord, kumbaya! Someone's crying, Lord, kumbaya! Someone's crying, Lord, kumbaya! O Lord, kumbaya!

And so forth and so on, world without end. Amen.

Where did the song come from? As it turns out, that is a complicated question and Weiss notes that this is one case in which Wikipedia doesn't seem to have it down right, chapter and verse. However, that isn't the heart of the story he is out to tell.

You see, the cultural gods have decreed that "Kumbaya" is the song that shallow, simplistic, naive people sing. That's what they do. The song was a joke already when I was a teenager in Texas Baptist circles. Its iconic status appears to have been formalized soon after that. Here is Weiss doing the crunch paragraphs:

... (In) the early 1980s, something happened. "Kumbaya" became the English-speaking world's favorite folksong to ridicule, the musical metaphor for corny camaraderie. How? Someone's wondering, Lord.

An extensive (and we do mean extensive) search of databases of newspapers, magazines and other sources turned up what may be the first ironic reference to "Kumbaya" in print, from Aug. 16, 1985.

The line is from a Washington Post review by Rita Kempley of the comedy movie Volunteers: "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."

How did she settle on "Kumbaya"? Had she heard others mocking it? Was it something about the cynicism felt by liberals under Reagan? A commentary about the religious theme of the song, at a time when the Moral Majority was making its name?

Ms. Kempley can't remember. "I guess that song was the ultimate expression of people in the '60s who really cared," said Ms. Kemply. ...

"And then everyone decided, Let's just make fun of that."

Dissing "Kumbaya" caught on.

So is this a mock evangelicals thing or a mock liberals thing or what?

Oh well, whatever, never mind. Enjoy the article. And enjoy discussing it at the new Dallas Morning News religion-coverage blog.

And, hey, it's a Zen thing. Now Weiss has turned around and plugged GetReligion right back.

Please respect our Commenting Policy