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"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is among the most widely recognized and frequently recorded African-American spirituals. And according to some music scholars, the song's history speaks volumes about the slavery experience. Written by unknown slaves in the Deep South and circulated by word of mouth, the song, it's argued, carried a coded message to runaways preparing their escape on the Underground Railroad.
But other historians paint a very different picture of the song's origins. These say it was written in Oklahoma (not the Deep South) by a known author (not an unknown source) and that it circulated first among Native Americans (not African Americans).
So, which story is true? And if the latter, how could a slave song find its way to the Native-American communities of the Southwest and then back to African-American spiritual singers in the South?
|Year||Unknown (pre-Civil War; first recorded 1909)|
|Writer(s)||Wallis Willis (attributed)|
|Learn to play|
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has remained a popular spiritual for well over a century. It has influenced and inspired scores of artists, writers, and musicians and been covered hundreds of times. Singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Beyoncé, Paul Robeson, and The Grateful Dead have all recorded their own versions of the song.
The Choctaws were among the first Indian nations removed from the Southeast during the massive removal campaigns of the 1830s.
The adoption of slavery by the Civilized Tribes of the Southeast led to a blurring of racial lines.
According to legend, the song was among her favorites and used to alert slaves that she would be arriving soon to escort them to freedom.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, ca. 1871
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” became a part of the choir’s repertoire in 1871.
This useful little site provides a historical overview of spirituals as well as information on various composers, singers, and songs.
Fisk Jubilee Singers
The Fisk Jubilee Singers still exist. They still represent Fisk University and record and tour. Their official site offers a brief history of the group and current tour information.
The Library of Congress has constructed a useful site on the Indian Removal Acts and the forced relocation of Native Americans during the 1830s. It provides maps, documents, links, and recommended reading.
More Indian Removal
This small site posted by PBS provides a short overview of Indian removal during the 1830s and links to more information and documents.
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” Fisk Jubilee Singers
Member of the path-breaking choir recorded the spiritual in 1909.
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” Paul Robeson
The football player turned lawyer turned actor and singer helped popularize spirituals during the 1920s.
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” Kathleen Battle and the Boys Choir of Harlem
The Opera Diva performs the spiritual.
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” Joan Baez
The folk singer performed the song at Woodstock in 1969.
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” English Rugby Fans
English rugby fans adopted the song as an anthem during the 1980s.