History of Hymns: 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'
By Nick Klemetson
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
African American Spiritual
Songs of Zion, 104
The United Methodist Hymnal, 703
Swing low, sweet chariot,
coming for to carry me home;
Swing low, sweet chariot,
coming for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see,
coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
coming for to carry me home.
African American spirituals exist in many forms and styles, evolving throughout decades as a part of American culture. Spirituals born in the early Black church were known as “folk spirituals.” American musicologist Eileen Southern noted that songs in the folk tradition were created by non-professionals who adapted the music to the “taste of those who sing and those who listen” (Southern 1997, p. 184). She describes three common compositional techniques used; a new song could be improvised or altered from an existing song, material from existing songs could combine to make something unique, or the music could be composed entirely of new material. “Swing low, sweet chariot” appears to be the latter type, though its origins are far from clear.
One story of the spiritual’s origin was shared by John Wesley Work II (1872–1925) in Folk Song of the American Negro (1915). Work II, one of the first editors and compilers of folk spirituals, tells an evocative story about the origins of “Swing low, sweet chariot.” He describes a young mother (Sarah Hannah Sheppard) who was to be sold to the south and separated from her infant daughter.
Knowing that being sent to Mississippi from Tennessee was essentially a death sentence, Hannah planned to kill herself and her baby to avoid that fate (this was not uncommon). Work II vividly narrates this experience:
An old “mammy,” seeing the terrible expression on her face, and hearing these words, read her intentions. In love she laid her dear old hand upon the shoulder of the distressed mother and said, “Don’t you do it, honey, wait, let de chariot of de Lord swing low, and let me take one of de Lord’s scrolls an’ read it to you.” Then, making a motion as reaching for something, and unrolling it, she read, “God’s got a great work for dis baby to do; she’s goin’ to stand befo’ kings and queens. Don’t you do it, honey.” The mother was so impressed with the words of the old “mammy” she gave up her fell design and allowed herself to be taken off down into Mississippi, leaving her baby behind (Work  1969, p. 80).
Based on other writings of Work II, one can wonder whether this story is historical or apocryphal. What is undoubtedly historical is that the baby girl in the story was Ella Sheppard, who later became one of the founding members of the Fisk University Singers, for whom she provided musical direction from 1871–1879. She fulfilled the prophecy the “mammy” offered during this time, as she and the Singers sang for Queen Victoria on their European tour in 1873.
More recently, a second origin story has come to light. As reported in a USA Today article, Currie Ballard, a historian at Langston University (Langston, Oklahoma), who passed away in 2014, discovered a reference in a book by Mabel Havdahl Alexander, Via Oklahoma: And Still the Music Flows. A portion of the book corroborated a story Ballard said he would hear from his mother and grandmother. This story supported the theory that “Swing low, sweet chariot” was written by Wallace Willis, a formerly enslaved African American who was granted citizenship in the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma after the Civil War. Willis would often sing while working at the Spencer Academy, and he was overheard by headmaster Reverend Alexander Reid, who appreciated the songs (including “Swing low”) so much that he had them sent to Fisk University, where they became part of the repertoire of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
While both stories have shared moments of intrigue, it is unlikely that the definitive origin of “Swing low, sweet chariot” will ever be known. However, it is known that its first published appearance was in the 1872 edition of Jubilee Songs (p. 6), a volume of spirituals performed by the Jubilee Singers.
This was followed by its first SATB choral arrangement in 1881, arranged by American composer and hymnist James R. Murray (1841–1905). Since then, the spiritual has appeared in approximately eighty hymnals.
The biblical connection to the spiritual is found in 2 Kings 2:11–12, where a chariot of fire appeared before the prophet Elijah and his son Elisha. The chariot swooped low, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind to heaven. The refrain of “Swing low” depicts this:
Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.
Professor of Church Music Eileen Guenther describes the “chariot” as a “French sled like vehicle used to transport tobacco in the Carolinas” (Guenther 2016, p. 126). This vehicle appears in several other spirituals, including “Good news, the chariot’s comin’” and “Great day” (Chariot rode on the mountain top / My God spoke and the chariot did stop). Interestingly, though the “chariot” trope is in nine of the spirituals contained in Thomas P. Fenner’s Religious Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations (Hampton, VA, 1909), none of them are the most familiar spiritual on this theme. Two unrelated spirituals in the collection contain the phrase “Swing low, chariot” or Swing low, sweet chariot,” perhaps supporting the narrative offered by Work and the dissemination of the distinctive version by Sheppard in the Nashville Fisk community.
The meaning of “home” here has several possibilities. The Heavenly Kingdom is one; the northern United States and Canada were other possible “homes” for those escaping slavery along the Underground Railroad. Black historian, Miles Mark Fisher, offers a third interpretation that “home” refers to the African continent, where men and women were taken from their homeland and brutally transported to America. Fisher describes a “reincarnation to Africa,” where an individual would return to their homeland upon death (Fisher 1990, p. 145).
The call-response stanzas (four are present in Jubilee Songs) are unified by the continued presence of the phrase “coming for to carry me home.”
st. 1 – I looked over Jordan and what did I see? / A band of angels coming after me.
st. 2 – If you get there before I do, / tell all my friends I’m coming too.
st. 3 – The brightest day that ever I saw, / when Jesus washed my sins away.
st. 4 – I’m sometimes up and sometimes down, / but still my soul feels heavenly bound.
The third and fourth stanzas are peculiar here; stanza three does not rhyme, and stanza four contains the exact words found in several other spirituals, including “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” The first stanza contains two familiar spiritual tropes, the River Jordan and a band of angels. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites attempted to escape from enslavement in Egypt and made their way to the Promised Land using the Jordan River. This parallels the journey of enslaved African Americans traversing various rivers as they escaped to the north. This is a theme in several other spirituals. The band of angels is also typical, appearing in spirituals like “All night, all day” and the appropriately named “Angel Band.” Guenther posits that the “band of angels” may also refer to Harriet Tubman and other individuals along the Underground Railroad (Guenther 2016, p. 126). Finally, the second stanza encapsulates the journey to the great camp meeting. This “hallelujah” moment of arriving at the heavenly kingdom is often found in the spirituals. Despite their earthly toils, spiritualists could always find the path leading to God’s right hand.
The tune for “Swing low” is profound in its simplicity. The pentatonic melody is essentially contained within an octave (only a single sixteenth note extends another whole step up). The contour slowly oscillates between the lower octave and the higher, possibly symbolizing the swinging of the chariot. Like the text, the melody during the verses is also suited for a call-response structure. Harmonically, the 1872 Jubilee Songs version only included harmony on the text “coming for to carry me home,” probably indicating a typical call (solo)/response (all) performance practice. (Listen to this early recording by Jubilee Singers male quartet: https://archive.org/details/swinglowsweetcha10296gut). The harmonies themselves are limited to the tonic and dominant.
CHORAL AND CONCERT SETTINGS
The first SATB arrangement of “Swing low” was by James R. Murray in 1881. Since then, most of the great spiritual arrangers have created solo or choral arrangements of the spiritual, including Hall Johnson, Harry T. Burleigh, William Dawson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zYEDbz3mZA), Moses Hogan, and Stacey V. Gibbs, who crafted a stunning SSAA arrangement in 2014 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cw3zk45d4lk&t=31s). Arrangements also exist for young voices, concert band, and handbells.
USE IN POPULAR CULTURE
Occasionally, a song born from or primarily used in a religious tradition will transcend its original intentions and become well-known outside of it. Much like “Amazing Grace,” “Swing Low” gained traction outside the hymnals and often became heard in everyday life, both in the United States and internationally. After hearing it from famed baritone Paul Robeson (1898–1976), English folk singer Joe Stead (1941–2017) claimed to have introduced the song to his English Rugby club in February 1960 (BBC News, 2017). It was thought to have debuted at Twickenham Stadium (the home of the England national team) during a match in 1988, following a hat-trick (an individual player scoring three times) by winger Chris Oti. However, archival footage uncovered in 2020 revealed that it was sung a year prior, in 1987, involving a player named Martin “Chariots” Offiah. He was given the nickname as an homage to the film Chariots of Fire (1981). Phil McGowan, the curator of the World Rugby Museum who found the footage, said that “the association with Martin Offiah suggests it was a play on words” (Lowbridge, 2020). Regardless of the origin, the spiritual has been a much-loved tradition for English rugby fans for over thirty years.
In 2020, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) began a review process of the use of the song due to incidents such as the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, on May 25, 2020. “Chariots” Offiah himself commented on it, saying he was in favor of the review by the RFU but did not believe the song should be banned. Former English national team captain Maxine Edwards stated that the song’s usage is only a small part of the more significant issues of discrimination and representation that the RFU needs to address (BBC Sport, 2020).
The spiritual has also been frequently used in film and television throughout the twentieth century, seriously and for comedic effect. Some of its appearances have not aged well, such as in Mel Brooks’ satirical western Blazing Saddles. Pop star Beyoncé sang a passionate version in the 2003 film The Fighting Temptations, which morphed into the similar upbeat spiritual “Swing down, chariot.” Finally, the recording by the St. Olaf Choir from their album The Spirituals of William L. Dawson (1997) was used in Peter Cousens’ film Freedom (2014).
Until 2016, the earliest known recording of the spiritual was made by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1KQi2xPfs0). Recently, Archeophone Records discovered a collection of wax cylinders, most of which were destroyed or beyond repair. Only a few contained discernable sound, and a recording by the Standard Quartette (a popular group active through the turn of the century) was uncovered singing “Swing low” dated 1894 (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAEo3S9s7CE). Pre-dating the 1909 recording by fifteen years, one can hear a distinct difference in style and performance practice between the two.
With a recording history extending back over 130 years, “Swing low, sweet chariot” is one of the most loved, best-known spirituals in the catalog. American-Ghanaian historian W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1863) cited the music of this spiritual at the beginning of Chapter 12 of his famous The Souls of Black Folk (1903). He pointed out that despite his lack of musical knowledge, he knew “that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world” (Du Bois 2018, p. 192). The message here is that a path to heaven exists, and when the time comes, one can cross the bridge into eternity. Good news, the chariot’s coming!
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Mabel Havdahl Alexander, Via Oklahoma: And Still the Music Flows (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2004).
BBC News, “Why do England Fans Sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?” (posted February 3, 2017), https://www.bbc.com/sport/av/rugby-union/38817411 (accessed February 6, 2023).
BBC Sport, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: Boris Johnson Says Song Should Not Be Banned” (posted June 19, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/sport/rugby-union/53096584 (accessed February 5, 2023).
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois: With a Critical Introduction by Patricia H. Hinchey (Bloomfield, US: Myers Education Press  2018), http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/southernmethodist/detail.action?docID=5377984 (accessed January 10, 2023).
Melanie Eversley, “Story Behind Spiritual ‘Sweet Chariot’ Emerges,” USA Today (posted August 15, 2006), http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2006-08-14-chariot_x.htm?csp=34 (accessed January 31, 2023).
Chris Fenner, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Hymnology Archive (September 2018/rev. March
2022): https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/swing-low-sweet-chariot (accessed February 1, 2023).
Thomas P. Fenner, Ed., Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations (Hampton, VA: Hampton Institute Press, 1909): https://archive.org/details/religiousfolkson00fenn/mode/2up?q=chariot (accessed February 12, 2023).
Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States. 1st Carol Pub. Group ed. A Citadel Press Book (New York: Carol Pub. Group, 1990).
Eileen Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals (St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2016).
Caroline Lowbridge, “Why is Swing Low, Sweet Chariot the England Rugby Song?” BBC News (posted June 19, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-51646140 (accessed February 5, 2023).
Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).
John Wesley Work, Folk Song of the American Negro (New York: Negro Universities Press,  1969), https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015022008216 (accessed January 11, 2023).
Nick Klemetson is currently Parish Organist at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Lakeland, Florida. He is a Doctor of Pastoral Music candidate at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.