Don’t kumbaya, Holy Man

Here’s a story of clergy misconduct that is more irritating than most.

We’ve all learned the song Kumbaya at some time or another; it’s a sweet if somewhat cloying song and it is routinely disparaged by the Loony Right, as in “There isn’t going to be a Kumbaya moment in this fight.” Ho-hum.

But a piece about the song in yesterday’s New York Times includes an annoying detail.

For decades, the dominant narrative was that a white evangelist, the Rev. Marvin V. Frey, had originally composed “Kumbaya.” This story was spread in part by Mr. Frey himself, who got a copyright on the song in 1939, claiming to have written it in 1936 based on a prayer he heard in Oregon.

Something about that story never sat right with Stephen Winick, who has a Ph.D. in folklore. For one, the song sounds like something from the African-American tradition. Mr. Winick had also heard rumors that there was an earlier recording of the song in the archives of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where he works.

“I think it’s important to restore cultural materials to their communities of origin,” he said. “Give credit where it’s due.”

Several years ago, Mr. Winick dug up that old wax cylinder recording. It was captured in 1926 by Robert Winslow Gordon, the first head of the Archive of American Folk Song. It was the recording of H. Wylie singing “Come By Here” in an accent that sounds like “kumbaya,” a decade before Mr. Frey claimed to have written “Kumbaya.”

In other words, a white Holy Man dishonestly claimed he had written a slave song, copyrighted it, and pocketed the proceeds.

Frey gulled even the New York Times:

The Rev. Marvin V. Frey, an evangelical minister who wrote many well-known songs of faith, died on Saturday at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in North Tarrytown, N.Y. His best-known song is “Kum Ba Yah,” which he wrote at 17 while attending a Christian Crusade camp.

Seriously: We need to get over the idea that the devout are special, that they are somehow ‘better’ people, more honest people, more virtuous and trustworthy people. The unhappy truth is that only deeply-embedded intellectual corruption makes belief in the Christian narrative possible, and that corruption inevitably manifests itself throughout the rest of a person’s activities.

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