A Song Led Them Home
May 30, 2023 10:03 AM   Subscribe

The Language You Cry In traces how a song preserved over generations of women was able to lead a family back to its pre-slavery roots in Sierra Leone. In 1933 a linguist recorded Amelia Dawley singing a song that had been passed on long enough for its meaning and language to have been forgotten. Researchers recognized the language as a dialect spoken only in southern Sierra Leone. It would still take decades of time and the efforts of Amelia's daughter Mary, Baindu Jabati in Sierra Leone, who had preserved a similar song, and the collaboration of multiple scholars for the origins of the song -- a death hymn -- to be fully uncovered.

From the California Newsreel film description: "Finally in 1997, Mary Moran and her family could travel and, after a painful visit to Bunce Island, were received with jubilation in Senehum Ngola. The village's blind, 90 year old chief, Nabi Jah, organized a teijami ceremony for Mary, even though it had been in desuetude since the introduction of Christianity and Islam earlier in the century. Thus Mary's homecoming became a catalyst for Mende people to rediscover a part of their own past. When Opala asked Nabi Jah why a Mende woman exiled two hundred years ago would have preserved this particular song, he replied that the answer was obvious. "That song would be the most valuable thing she could take. It could connect her to all her ancestors and to their continued blessings." Then he quoted a Mende proverb, "You know who a person really is by the language they cry in.""
posted by cubby (10 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Amazing story.
posted by Glinn at 10:52 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]

That was amazing! I wonder if the family kept in contact as the years went by and if other Gullah families made similar trips and found similar connections.
posted by kingdead at 11:52 AM on May 30

Unbelievable. A living connection preserved for centuries.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:04 PM on May 30

Cynthia Schmidt, the musicologist in the film, who traced the Gullah song with Joe Opala, the anthropologist, is doing an impromptu AMA on a Today I Learned Reddit thread about the film.
posted by Mitheral at 5:50 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]

How beautiful. Thank you.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 7:59 PM on May 30

Everyone come together, let us work hard;
the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be at peace at once.

posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 8:01 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]

that was fantastic. so moving and such a painful history that seems triumphant for Mary. Thank you so much for the post.
posted by bluesky43 at 5:35 PM on June 2

Interesting that the lyrics include the invocation, "kambay yah" or "come together". It seems that the Kumbaya song we're all familiar with is the same source Gullah dialect.

Fascinating post! What a precious piece of research.
posted by amusebuche at 9:17 PM on June 2

Originally, Kumbaya to my mind was a Gullah version of the old and well known gospel song Come By Here but now I am not so sure:

Come by Here -- Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Come by Here -- The Bolton Brothers

Come by Here, Good Lord -- Walter Hawkins

Come by Here, Good Lord We Need You -- Pearlgrandboy

Come by Here -- K. M. Williams

Note that each version above seems to be copyrighted by the singer or singers. And you thought that this sort of thing began with Bob Dylan. Well, think again apparently.

And here is Kumbaya -- Pete Seeger recorded at the Newport Folk Festival 10/24/1964.

Between Pete Seeger's singalong fixation, alone and with the Weavers, the song Kumbaya came to be the folk singing standard.

The Hymnary has a number of versions split between the Gullah Geechee origin on one hand and traditional on another.

But, which came first -- the Gullah Kumbaya or the gospel standard Come by Here? The long and short answers seem to be the same: it's complicated:

Here, from the American Folklife Center Archive at the Library of Congress is

Kumbaya: History of an Old Song
posted by y2karl at 6:48 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]

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