History & Headlines

Black History Month: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

February is Black History Month. One of the most important cultural legacies of any country, ethnicity, or religion, is music. The haunting spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot goes all the way back to the American Civil War

black history month, black man, black woman, train tracks, underground railroad, african americans, black canadians, slaves, american civil war, gospel music, memorial

(Underground Railroad Photo Blend** © 2020 Anita Hamilton)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Lyrics and History

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

 

If you get there before I do

Coming for to carry me home

Tell all of my friends that I’m coming there too

Coming for to carry me home

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 spirituals were 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”

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Performances

Ella Eyre sings a dynamic version of the classic spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariotthe anthem for England’s Rugby team in 2015.

Many artists have sung Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; the first known recording was the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909, below.

Today, these moving spirituals are most often heard in gospel music, in church choirs, funeral and memorial services.

Pioneer blues singer Willie Mae Thornton (“Big Mama Thornton”) recorded Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in 1970.

Bill Medley has recorded Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Here he performs it on The Smothers Brothers TV series in 1968.

Etta James sings Swing Low, Sweet Chariot withbackground singers. 

Eric Clapton performs Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as well:

Paul Robeson‘s deep voice resounds on his recording of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

 

Note: This article was first published in 2016.

**Source photos from Unsplash – Oladimeji Odunsi and Aleksandr Saenko

Anita Hamilton

50+ World editor & baby boomer writer Anita Hamilton has always been interested in the "real people" stories behind the characters that create and inhabit the world of music, books, movies, television shows, current events, history, etc. A lifelong love of research (ok, nosiness) and writing, combined with a loving and supportive family complete with 3 mini-dachshund minions, keeps her busy.

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