I’ve just uploaded PDFs of 5 more copyright-free hymns to this Google Drive folder: “Come By Here” (a.k.a. “Kumbayah”), “Many Thousand Gone,” “Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Siyahamba,” and “Transience.” All these hymns have appeared in UU hymnals.
Why copyright-free hymns? Because you don’t need a license, which smaller congregations may not be able to afford. Because you can do anything you want with them, including recording them, altering them, projecting lyrics and/or music, etc., etc. In this multiplatform age, we need more copyright-free hymns.
Of the hymns I just uploaded, you might be most interested in “Come By Here.” This is often assumed to be a copyrighted song composed by Marvin Frey. My research shows that this is, in fact, a public domain song. In addition, most of us are sick of the usual, sing-around-the-campfire “Kumbayah,” which can sound a bit dreary. I found alternate public domain tune and lyrics that are more lively, more fun to sing.
“Transience” is also worthy of your attention. It’s one of the songs that got dropped in the transition from the 1964 Songs for the Celebration of Life hymnal to the 1993 Singing the Living Tradition hymnal. The text is by South Asian poet Sarojini Naidu. Not only is it a pretty good poem, but we need more hymns by Asian and Asian American authors and composers.
Information for the five songs is below the fold.
Come By Here — 401, Singing the Living Tradition
The origins of this song have been disputed, but archival evidence from the Library of Congress make it clear that this is a public domain song. According to Stephen Winick, “The World’s First ‘Kumbaya’ Moment: New Evidence about an Old Song,” Folklife Center News, American Folklife Center, the Library of Congress, vol. 32, nos. 3-4, summer/fall, 2010: “The evidence from the American Folklife Center Archive … suggests that ‘Kumbaya’ is an African American spiritual which originated somewhere in the American south….” Although Marvin Frey, a white evangelist, claimed copyright on this song in 1936, a 1926 recording in the Library of Congress archives is substantially the same as Frey’s published version. The singer in this recording is only identified as “H. Wylie,” and no date is given, though it’s probable that the recording was made in April or May of 1926.
According to Winick, the usual song title of “Kumbayah” comes from a misunderstanding of an African American dialect. Winick says that Marvin Frey claimed “the pronunciation ‘Kum Ba Yah’ originated when Luvale-speaking people in Angola and Zaire translated ‘Come by Here’ into their language.” But, says Winick, “In Wylie’s dialect, which is most likely a form of Gullah, the word ‘here’ is pronounced as ‘yah,’ rendering the song’s most repeated line ‘come by yah,’ a phrase that can be phonetically rendered as either ‘Kum Ba Yah’ or ‘Kumbaya.’” In short, the Marvin Frey story simply isn’t credible. Today’s singers can choose to sing “Come by here,” or if they prefer they can use the Gullah dialect and sing “Come by yah.”
The words and tune of the present version are drawn transcriptions in Winick’s article. I’ve released the simple arrangement into the public domain. Note that the metronome marking is from Winick’s article. Winick also provides additional verses from a 1936 recording in the Library of Congress, made by John Lomax, including “Somebody moaning Lord…,” analogous to commonly-sung verses like “Someone’s singing, Lord,” etc. Additional verses from this 1936 recording are included in the sheet music. Improvised lyrics are appropriate for this kind of spiritual, though it is to be hoped that improvisation would not be limited to simply substituting different verbs in the phrase “Somebody’s moaning, Lord.”
Winick points out that “Kumbayah” has come “to stand for the touchy-feely, the wishy-washy, the nerdy, and the meek.” It is hoped that the present version, with the vigorous melody and words from the 1926 and 1936 audio recordings, will improve perceptions of this powerful African American spiritual. [For more, see: https://www.loc.gov/folklife/news/pdf/FCNews32_3-4_opt.pdf ]
The song is #11924 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
Many Thousand Gone — 154, Singing the Living Tradition
Tune, text, and arrangement are all from The [Fisk] Jubilee Singers (1873). The small notes were not in the original, and represent a possible simple accompaniment for the solo sections; I’ve released this arrangement into the public domain.
The metronome marking is merely a suggestion, and represents the approximate tempo used by such singers as Paul Robeson and Odetta.
Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen — 99, Singing the Living Tradition
Text, tune, and arrangement all come from Cabin and Plantation Songs: As Sung by the Hampton Students, ed. Thomas Fenner, 1880. One small alteration in the 1880 text: “Nobody knows but Jesus” has been replaced with “Nobody knows my sorrow,” an alternative which comes from oral tradition.
This song was first published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the U.S. with a slightly different tune and text. In 1917, Harry T. Burleigh arranged this spiritual as an art song, a version that is well worth seeking out. (Burleigh marks the tempo as adagio, though others may prefer andante or moderato.)
Siyahamba — 1030, Singing the Journey
This traditional Zulu song is best known in a copyright-protected arrangement by the Swedish-South African choral director Anders Nyberg, published in his book, Freedom Is Coming in 1984. According to Boris Gorelik, in “‘Siyahamba’: The Origins and Significance of a South African Chorus,” Journal of Music Research in Africa, vol. 17, 2020, issue 2, “the earliest documented performance of the chorus took place in Dundee in the current uMzinyathi district of the former Natal province (now KwaZulu-Natal or KZN), South Africa, in 1952.… However, it appears that this musical work has a longer undocumented history….”
Transience — 77, Songs for the Celebration of Life
The text by Sarojini Naidu is from her book The Bird of Time: Songs of Life, Death, and the Spring (London: Heinemann, 1912). A poet and a politician, Naidu was a follower of Gandhi, and also supported women’s rights.
The tune is from Louis Bourgeois’ Geneva Psalter. This tune is usually called “Donne Secours.” The harmonization is from the English Hymnal (1906).