Black History Month: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
February is Black History Month
Ella Eyre sings a dynamic version of the classic spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – the anthem for England’s Rugby team.
The origins and exact meaning of the lyrics to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, cannot be verified today, but African American slave Wallis Wallis (approx 1820-1880) is sometimes credited as having written it (along with other spirituals) around 1862, during the American Civil War. After the war, Wallis Wallis was a declared a Choctaw freedman (African American’s granted citizenship in the Native American Choctaw tribe).
According to The Official Site of the Negro Spirituals, the lyrics of early negro spirituals are often “coded” with words relating to escaping to a free country, so as to avoid censure from slave owners and allow the slaves to share secret messages. Their interpretation is that Swing Low, Sweet Chariot directly refers to the Underground Railroad, the route many slaves took to escape to freedom before the end of the Civil War:
- “home” means Heaven and/or a safe country where everyone can live free – a haven for slaves.
- riding a “chariot” or “train” referred to escaping slaves running to a free country
- “Swing low, sweet chariot” refers to Ripley, a “station” of the Underground Railroad, where fugitive slaves were welcome. Ripley sits on a hill by the wide Ohio River, which is not easy to cross. So, to reach this place, escaping slaves had to wait for help coming from the hill. The words of this spiritual say, “I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/ A band of angels coming after me”
Today, these moving spirituals are most often heard in gospel music, in church choirs, funeral and memorial services.