“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is among the most treasured and widely recognized African American spirituals. It was placed in the National Archives by the Library of Congress and identified as one of the “Songs of the Century” by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. First recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909, it has been covered in the century since by virtually everyone: from Joan Baez to Roadkill; from Benny Goodman to B.B. King: from Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead to Alvin and the Chipmunks.
But while the spiritual’s music and lyrics are widely known, the song’s history is a bit cloudy. And this history may reveal as much about Native Americans as African Americans. According to many accounts, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was one of the spirituals born from the experience of slaves in the first decades of the 19th century. Composed by unknown slaves over time and passed orally from community to community, the song allegedly voiced slaves’ hopes that ultimately they would find comfort in a heavenly home:
“Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
. . .
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.”
Yet some music historians have added another layer to this account of the song’s origins. They have argued that “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was one of the spirituals that conveyed a secret meaning to slaves. According to this theory, slave spirituals did a lot more than offer a promise of eventual redemption; they also offered specific strategies and even maps needed to escape. For example, “Wade in the Water” taught runaway slaves how to throw off the bloodhounds sent to track them down. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” provided slaves with an elaborate coded map that would lead them to the North and freedom: the refrain told them to keep their eye on the Big Dipper (the drinking gourd) as the stars marking the edge of its cup pointed to Polaris, the North Star; the live, “The river ends between two hills,” taught runaways that, by following the Tombigbee River through Mississippi, they would reach the twin-coned Woodall Mountain; from there they would see “another river on the other side,” the Tennessee River, which would lead them to Illinois and freedom.
According to these historians, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was another in this collection of coded spirituals. In fact, according to some, it was one of Harriet Tubman’s favorites. The heroic conductor on the Underground Railroad made her own escape to freedom in 1849. She returned south the next year to lead her sister and her two children north. Over the next ten years, she made another 18 trips into slave states and escorted an estimated 300 slaves to freedom. Legend has it that slaves sang “Swing low sweet chariot, comin’ for the carry me home” to announce that Tubman or another “conductor” would be arriving soon to lead them to freedom.
Or Indian-Owned Slave?
Yet while Tubman’s heroics were real, not everyone is convinced that the spiritual played a part in her adventures. In fact, most music historians now believe that the song’s writer is not even unknown. The composer, “Uncle Wallis” Willis, was a slave born probably in Mississippi before the Civil War. But his owner was not your typical Southern planter—Britt Willis was a Choctaw Indian. The Choctaws were one of the five “civilized tribes” occupying the southeastern parts of the United States in the first decades of the 19th century. Believing that they might fend off removal by adopting some of the economic and cultural practices of the white population encroaching on their lands, the Choctaws took up farming; many also converted to Christianity and some purchased slaves.
Many Native American tribes practiced a form of slavery long before white Europeans came to the North America, but the Indian practice was more limited and very different from the form of slavery eventually employed by white settlers. Indians occasionally enslaved prisoners captured in war, but often they were adopted into the tribe, sometimes as replacements for killed warriors. These “slaves” were not viewed as inferior to other tribe members, and their children did not inherit their status.
However, once exposed to the form of slavery practiced by whites, primarily in the American South, the large Indian nations of the region—the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws—adopted this European-American form of slavery. By 1830, these tribes held thousands of slaves. To a large extent, they engaged in this practice for economic reasons, but owning slaves was also part of a larger strategy designed to fend off white attempts to remove them from their lands. By imitating white practices, they hoped to prove that they had been assimilated. To a large extent, though, these attempts at assimilation only increased the hostility of white settlers anxious to seize their lands. These settlers wanted the Indians removed, not absorbed. As a result, the Choctaws, along with the Cherokees and Chickasaws, were forced to sign a series of treaties during the 1830s that dispossessed them of their lands and forced them westward to new lands in Oklahoma.
Britt Willis was among the Choctaws forced to move west, and he took his slaves, including Wallis, with him. In the Oklahoma Territory, Britt succeeded in rebuilding his life on a large plantation near Doaksville, and it is quite possible that Wallis wrote “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” while living as a slave there. Ironically, though, the song circulated first among young Choctaw boys, not among slaves. Britt hired Wallis out to the Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boys school, and this song was one of several that that Wallis sang to entertain the students. In fact, according to some accounts, the song was not widely circulated among African Americans until after the Civil War, when the superintendent of the Spencer Academy, Alexander Reid, shared the song with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This choir from Fisk University, an all-black college formed after the Civil War, had embarked on a tour in 1871 to raise funds for the struggling school. According to Reid, he introduced several of Willis’s songs to the choir, including "Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” They had never heard the song before, but thereafter it became a part of their regular repertoire, and in 1909, the Fisk Jubilee Singers became the first to record the song.
Over the next century, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” would become one of America’s most popular spirituals. With recordings by countless artists, including Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, Etta James, and Kathleen Battle, the song presented to modern generations the spiritual hope that helped many slaves endure the trials of their brutal experience. Most of the evidence points toward the conclusion that the song was rooted in a somewhat unusual version of that experience—written not in the Deep South, but in the Oklahoma territory, and circulating first among Native Americans, not African Americans—, but these facts do not reduce the power of the song or its success in capturing a powerful part of the slave experience. In fact, the song’s power may lie in the idea that it was born in the convergence of two great tragedies within American history: the horrors of African slavery and the injustice of Native American removal. Its prayer that someday the singers would find a resting place could as easily speak to one mistreated people as the other.