Sunday, March 30, 2008

The contadictions of Kumbaya

First of all, a milestone to note. This is my 100th post! OK, back to the blogging.

Meghan Daum, one of my favorite dead-tree-media columnists and easily the best reason to read the LA Times on Saturdays, has a great column about the word "kumbaya." I have such positive associations with that word. Pine trees, campfires, toasting marshmallows. But alas! Now it is being used to paint people as a little too touchy-feely. So it has kept its old meaning, but also morphed into something strangely other:

"The term allows its users to have their coolness cake and eat it too. To invoke "Kumbaya" is to display one's countercultural credentials while simultaneously letting it be known how stupid and irrelevant those credentials are in today's world. Like those loathsome shibboleths "think outside the box" and "let's take a blue sky approach," which combine self-help jargon with corporate doublespeak, "Kumbaya" manages to be completely earnest and completely disingenuous at the same time."

It is a strange symbol of how fast language is evolving and how different parts of our culture reference each other. Everyone understands what "kumbaya" means, even people who didn't have post-60's campfire experiences. And I don't think the cooption is actually working all that well. It doesn't matter how many times I hear it used as a term of condescension. I don't care if it refers to how airheaded hippies were. I can still reach back and associate it with my own experiences. Which is a solid defense against being emotionally manipulated.


ITF said...

From the Straight Dope:

Kumbaya apparently originated with the Gullah, an African-American people living on the Sea Islands and adjacent coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. (The best known Sea Island is Hilton Head, the resort area.) Having lived in isolation for hundreds of years, the Gullah speak a dialect that most native speakers of English find unintelligible on first hearing but that turns out to be heavily accented English with other stuff mixed in. The dialect appears in Joel Chandler Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories, to give you an idea what it sounds like. In the 1940s the pioneering linguist Lorenzo Turner showed that the Gullah language was actually a creole consisting of English plus a lot of words and constructions from the languages of west Africa, the Gullahs' homeland. Although long scorned as an ignorant caricature of English, Gullah is actually a language of considerable charm, with expressions like (forgive my poor attempt at expressing these phonetically) deh clin, dawn (literally "day clean"); troot mout, truthful person ("truth mouth"), and tebble tappuh, preacher ("table tapper").

And of course there's kumbayah. According to ethnomusicologist Thomas Miller, the song we know began as a Gullah spiritual. Some recordings of it were made in the 1920s, but no doubt it goes back earlier. Published versions began appearing in the 1930s. It's believed an American missionary couple taught the song to the locals in Angola, where its origins were forgotten. The song was then rediscovered in Angola and brought back here in time for the folksinging revival of the 50s and 60s. People might have thought the Gullahs talked funny, but we owe them a vote of thanks. Can you imagine sitting around the campfire singing, "Oh, Lord, come by here"?

JohnTEQP said...

I read once that Clarence Thomas grew up speaking Gullah, and still thinks that his spoken English is not that good, which is one reason that he doesn't ask questions while the Court is hearing oral arguments. Not sure how true that is, but it makes sense.