Defined as a Negro spiritual music, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was recorded first by the Fisk Jubilee Singers sometime in 1909. It was soon honored by the Library of Congress in 2002, which became one of the many music recordings that were added to the prestigious National Recording Registry. Later on, the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Recording Industry Association of America added it to the historic list called ‘Songs of the Century.’ Here is a closer and more in-depth look at the song’s colorful history.
Historical Background of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
The song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was written by a Choctaw freedman named Wallis Willis sometime in 1840. He was known to many people during that time as ’Uncle Wallace.’ His main inspiration when he wrote that song was his home close to Oklahoma City. Another inspiration was the Red River in Mississippi, which is at times referred to as the Red River of the South. This significant body of water greatly reminded him of the Prophet Elijah, which was closely associated with the Jordan River.
Numerous non-scholarly sources believe that the songs composed by Willis, namely the “Steal Away” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” both contained hidden lyrics that pertain to the 19th century escape route for slaves called the Underground Railroad. While Willis was singing the song, he was heard by a Choctaw boarding school minister named Alexander Reid. According to Reid, Willis transcribed the melodies and words. After that, he then sent the song to the African American a cappella ensemble called the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group that was based at Fisk University within the City of Nashville in Tennessee. With this, the song became highly popular, thanks mainly to the group’s tour in Europe and the United States.
During the 1960s, the popularity of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” resurged once again, thanks mainly to the folk revival as well as the Civil Rights struggle during that time. Many recording artists performed their very own versions, the most popular of which during that time was U.S. activist and folk singer Joan Baez. She performed the song during the historic Woodstock festival in 1969.
Because of the wonderful and meaningful lyrics of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the England rugby union fans decided to adopt it for the final match of the 1988 season. The UB40 recorded the song for the team in order to inspire its players to win the prestigious world cup.
More Points on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
The meaningful and inspiring lyrics as well as the soulful sound of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” eventually led to many to many notable cover versions. These include musicians Paul Robeson, Fats Waller and Benny Goodman of the 1930s. In the 1940s, the most impressive cover versions include Peggy Lee, Dizzy Gillespie and Tommy Dorsey. In the 1950s, the versions of singers Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were very inspiring. In modern times, cover versions were also made by Dinah Shore, Barbara Mandrell and Willie Nelson in the 1990s. In the 2000s, the top versions include those of John Davey, UB40 as well as Beyonce.