02 November 2019

‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’
I have been singing your
lyrics since the early 1970s

‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ … how did it become the English anthem? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

If England has an anthem, then it must be ‘Jerusalem.’

But for England’s rugby fans, for over 30 years, it has been ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ They continued to sing it with passion in Tokyo today, even though it never seemed there was a chance England could beat South Africa in the World Cup final.

I remember first singing this song not as a hymn but as a drinking game at Wexford rugby evenings as early as 1972-1974. It went with an elaborate set of mimes and gestures. If you got them wrong, it was your turn to buy the drinks.

But how did this 150-year old Gospel spiritual – and not ‘Jerusalem’ – become the rugby anthem of England?

The story goes back to 1988, when Ireland and England were playing at Twickenham in the last match of what was then the Five Nations Championship.

Coming into that last match, England had lost 15 of their previous 23 matches in the Championship. The Twickenham fans had only seen one solitary England try in the previous two years and at half time England was down 3-0 against Ireland.

However, England snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat, scored six tries in the second half, and winning 35-3 win. Three of those tries came in quick succession from Chris Oti, who was making his Twickenham debut.

A group of schoolboys from Douai, the Benedictine-run public school in West Berkshire, sang ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ each time England crossed the line and scored a try. It was an old school tradition, but when Oti got his second try other spectators close to the Douai boys joined in the singing. When Oti scored his hat-trick, the song rang out throughout Twickenham.

However, the BBC recently reported that four rugby players from Leicestershire claim they set the trend.

Four members of Market Bosworth Rugby Club who were at Twickenham that day – Dave Hales, John Ward, Bruce Coleman and Paul Spencer – claim they started singing the song first.

Dave Hales told BBC Radio Leicester: ‘We were in the North Stand having a bit of a good time, a good day … All of a sudden I started singing ‘Swing Low’ and the next thing you know the crowd round us was singing it, then the whole North Stand seemed to be singing it, and then the whole ground seemed to be singing it.’

John Ward said: ‘As far as we are concerned it started after, I believe, Rory Underwood scored the first try in the second half.’

And so, ever since – no matter who takes the credit – ‘Swing Low,’ and not ‘Jerusalem,’ has been the song of English rugby fans at all matches.

The song was written by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman in what is now Choctaw County in Oklahoma in the mid-1860s. He may have been inspired by the Red River, which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the story of the Prophet Elijah being taken to heaven in a chariot of fire (II Kings 2:11).

Some sources say the lyrics refer to the Underground Railroad, the freedom movement that helped black salves escape from the South slavery to the North and to Canada.

The Revd Alexander Reid, who heard Wallis Willis sing the song, transcribed the words and melodies and sent the music to the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Jubilee Singers popularised the song during a fundraising tour of the US and Europe.

The song was banned in Nazi Germany in 1939 when the Reich Music Examination Office decreed it was ‘undesired and harmful.’

The song enjoyed new popularity during the 1960s Civil Rights struggle and the folk revival. The best-known performance at this time may have been by Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969. Perhaps it was at this time that it spread to rugby clubs across England and Ireland.

I was singing it rugby clubs in the early 1970s, and I remember singing it as a party piece when I was student on a fellowship in Tokyo in 1979 – 40 years before today’s World Cup final in Tokyo.

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.

Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)

The brightest day that I can say,
(Coming for to carry me home)
When Jesus washed my sins away.
(Coming for to carry me home)

If I get there before you do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
I’ll cut a hole and pull you through.
(Coming for to carry me home)

If you get there before I do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
Tell all my friends I’m coming too.
(Coming for to carry me home)

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This song was always popular at Twickenham.
I remember going to the Middlesex Sevens in the 1970s when it was often sung, most notably when a male streaker was swinging from the goalposts.