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.

‘I said to my soul, be still,
and let the dark come upon you’

Dante’s meeting with Virgil (Truro Cathedral) … an image for All Souls’ Day and inspiration for TS Eliot (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Today in the Calendar of the Church is All Souls’ Day [2 November], following immediately after All Saints’ Day.

Although this is one of those days that does not feature in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland, All Souls’ Day is commemorated in Common Worship in the Church of England, and in the Episcopal Church and other member Church of the Anglican Communion.

In his letter in this month’s edition of Newslink, the Limerick and Killaloe diocesan magazine, writes, ‘Some mark 2nd November as All Souls’ Day when we remember all who have died and are now in closer communion with God, especially those whom we have known and have influenced us in our life.’

I often associate All Souls’ Day and the month of November with TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men,’ in which the speaker anticipates with dread ‘that final meeting.’ The men up images drawn from the straw man of Guy Fawkes night. But are they souls or saints, who grope together ‘In this last of meeting places.’

The final section, in its generalised abstraction of all that has gone before, tells us that ‘This is the way the world ends.’

Eliot’s Dante-like image of the lost souls, ‘Gathered on this beach of the tumid river,’ is one that recurs throughout his poetry. Prufrock escapes from the world of skirts and teacups to the world of visionary imagination through a ‘walk upon the beach.’ The protagonist of ‘The Waste Land’ sits down and weeps ‘By the waters of Leman,’ then upon the shore ‘with the arid plain behind me.’ The sea of ‘The Dry Salvages’ is ‘the land’s edge also.’

The Hollow Men arrive at the outer limit of one world only to find that its ‘deliberate disguises’ conceal a finite lack of possibility.

All Souls College, Oxford … a reminder of the ‘Faithful Departed’ on 2 November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

TS Eliot joined Faber & Gwyer in 1925 after working for Lloyds Bank for eight years. The publisher’s chairman, Geoffrey Faber, was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and had been looking for a literary adviser.

At the high table at All Souls one evening, Faber discussed his plans to set up a literary magazine with the journalist Charles Whibley.

Faber had worked for Oxford University Press before World War I, and was estates bursar of All Souls until the 1950s. Whibley had written for The Criterion, founded a few years earlier by Eliot, and suggested at that dinner in All Souls College that Faber’s company should acquire the magazine.

When Faber met the poet, he was so impressed that he immediately offered Eliot a place on the board. And so it was that Eliot joined Faber & Gwyer in 1925 as a director, with the understanding that the firm would publish his magazine and his books.

A letter in the Times Literary Supplement some years ago pointed out that Eliot failed to achieve an All Souls Fellowship a year later in 1926. Eliot had applied for a Research Scholarship with a research proposal on the Elizabethan dramatists. He was rejected because the committee felt that ‘the subject of research as interpreted by Mr Eliot himself is far too wide for any one man to undertake, and must lead to generalisations, the value of which must be doubtful, since the foundation of knowledge on which they are based must frequently be inadequate.’

On his blog, Armand D’Angour, a classical scholar and musician who is Associate Professor of Classics at Oxford University and a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, recalls that the late Sir Michael Hart (1948-2007), a Fellow of All Souls College and Chancery judge, used to say Eliot was turned down because the Fellows were scandalised by lines in his poem ‘Whispers of Immortality’:

Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

Whether the story has any foundation, I find instead on this morning of All Souls’ Day that I am thinking of lines in Eliot’s ‘East Coker’ (1940), the second his Four Quartets:

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God …

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

All Souls College, Oxford … refused to offer a fellowship to TS Eliot in 1926 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)