Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Nearing 40 and nearly broke, ousted from his last job as an English professor, a folklore buff named Robert Winslow Gordon set out in the spring of 1926 from his temporary home on the Georgia seacoast, lugging a hand-cranked cylinder recorder and searching for songs in the nearby black hamlets.
One particular day, Mr. Gordon captured the sound of someone identified only as H. Wylie, singing a lilting, swaying spiritual in the key of A. The lyrics told of people in despair and in trouble, calling on heaven for help, and beseeching God in the refrain, “Come by here.”
With that wax cylinder, the oldest known recording of a spiritual titled for its recurring plea, Mr. Gordon set into motion a strange and revealing process of cultural appropriation, popularization and desecration. “Come By Here,” a song deeply rooted in black Christianity’s vision of a God who intercedes to deliver both solace and justice, by the 1960s became the pallid pop-folk sing-along “Kumbaya.” Click below to listen.
- “Come by Here,” sung in Sea Islands Dialect (Gullah) by H. Wylie. Recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1926. This is the earliest known recording of the song that came to be known as “Kumbayah.” Noise on the wax cylinder recording obscures the song in the middle. No location given, but Wylie was probably from coastal South Carolina or Georgia. (audio)
- “The Southern Soldier,” a Civil War song sung by Minta Morgan. Recorded by John A. Lomax, 1937. (audio)
- “I Ain’t Got Nobody Much,” composed by Spencer Williams, sung by Marion Harris. Victor, 1916. Spencer Williams was a performer and composer born and educated in New Orleans, Louisiana. Like a number of African American artists of his era, he moved to Chicago to pursue his career. Better known today as “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” this was one of his most popular songs. (audio)
- “Are You from Dixie?” performed by Buster Ezell. Recorded by John Wesley Work, III, 1941. This song by New York composer George L. Cobb with lyrics by Polish-born Jack Yellen is one of many popular songs about “Dixie” written primarily for Northern and Midwestern stages in the early twentieth century (1916). Here, blues artist Buster Ezell, from Georgia gives his southern take on the song. (audio)
- “What a Time,” performed by the Golden Gate Quartet. Recorded by Willis James, Fort Valley Georgia, 1943. The singers were from the tidewater of Virginia. This song about World War II was performed during the war at the Fort Valley African American music festival. At this time during the war, German U boats were sinking vessels off of the United States coast, so the song ends with a verse about Hitler trying to rule the seas. Singers Willie Johnson and Orlandus Wilson both served in the Navy in the war in the Pacific. (audio)
- “Carrie,” performed by Vera Hall. Adell Hall Ward, known as Vera Hall, worked as a cook and laundress in Livingston, Alabama, but was sought after by folklorists because of her singing ability and repertoire of sacred and secular songs. This recording was made by John A. and Ruby Lomax in 1939. (audio)
- “Carolina,” by A.E. Blackmar, (no date, ca. 1865). A.E. Blackmar was a composer of patriotic music for the Confederacy during the Civil War. This song is about the destruction in South Carolina, and hope for a better future. (sheet music)
- “Hesitation Blues,” sung by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925. This blues song has many variations and was both published and performed by many artists. Folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford of North Carolina learned and documented folksongs throughout the Southeast. This song includes a verse about the boll weevil, which was causing widespread devastation to cotton crops in the early 1920s. (audio)
- “The Old Ninty Seven,” sung by Fred J. Lewey. Recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon in Concord, North Carolina, 1925. The Southern Fast Mail train number 97 derailed near Danville, Virginia in 1903, falling from a trestle bridge. The song, with several people claiming authorship, became the first song copyright suit to be appealed before the Supreme Court. Folklorist Gordon testified during the initial litigation. (audio)
- Dale Jett and the Carter Singers perform a Carter Family Tribute, performed at the Library of Congress, 2005. Dale Jett is the son of Janette Carter and the grandson of A.P and Sara Carter of the Carter Family performers. (webcast)
- “Little David,” performed by the Halloway High School Quartet of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Recorded by John Wesley Work, III, 1940. (audio)
- “Roll on Buddy,” performed by Aunt Molly Jackson. The singer is from Clay County, Kentucky. Recorded by Alan Lomax, 1939. (audio)
- Gandydancer: String Band Music from West Virginia, performance at the Library of Congress, 2007. (webcast)
- “Sprinkle Coal Dust on my Grave,” performed by Orville J. Jenks. Recorded by George Korson in in Welch, West Virginia, 1940. (audio)(this is the audio link. Use the montage if it is available).
- “Hunting Song,” sung by John Josh, Richard Osceola, Robert Osceola, and Barfield Johns. Seminole song recorded by Corita Doggett Corse and Robert Cornwall, July 25, 1940. (audio)
- “First Time I Come Into This Countree,” sung by an unidentified Bahamian American quartet. Recorded by Stetson Kennedy, in Key West, Florida, January 23, 1940. Bahamian American settlers of southern Florida formed the largest population of free African Americans in the United States before emancipation. (audio)
- “Duermate mi niño,” a Cuban lullaby sung by Zenaida Beuron. Recorded by Stetson Kennedy in Tampa, Florida, August 23, 1939. (audio)
- “Merce,” sung in Spanish by Adela Martinez with band. A Cuban dance song. Recorded by Herbert Halpert in Tampa, Florida, June 21, 1939. (audio)
- “Misirlou,” a traditional love song sung in Greek by Jennie Castrounis. Recorded by Alton Morris and Carita Doggett Corse in Tarpon Springs, Florida, October 4,1939. (audio)
- “Halimuhfack,” sung by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. She describes to folklorist Herbert Halpert how she learned the song and how she collected songs. Hurston was born in Alabama and grew up in Florida. She documented African American songs, stories, and lore throughout the south and in the Caribbean. Recorded by Herbert Halpert and Stetson Kennedy in Florida, June 18, 1939.
- “My Old Kentucky Home,” sung by Edward Favor. E. Berliner’s Gramophone recording, 1897. This song by Stephen Foster is the state song of Kentucky, famously sung at the opening of the Kentucky Derby. In 1986 the Kentucky Legislature officially changed the offensive word “darkies” to “people.”