Swing Low Sweet Chariot Introduction
“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 is 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 Indian communities of the Southwest and then back to African American spiritual singers in the South?
About the Song
|Year||unknown (pre-Civil War; first recorded 1909)|
|Writer(s)||Wallis Willis (attributed)|
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The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University introduced these songs to white audiences in the late 19th century. Fisk University, an all-black college, had been founded at the end of the Civil War by philanthropists and government reformers anxious to create educational opportunities for recently freed slaves. But as Northern support for Reconstruction faded, the college was forced to fight for its financial survival. The choir was sent out on tour to raise funds for the struggling school. Their efforts not only helped save the college, they exposed white American and European audiences to African American spirituals.
Yet “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was rooted in Native American as well as African American history. Most now believe that the song’s writer was Wallis Willis, a slave owned by Choctaw Indian Britt Willis. Probably born in Mississippi, Wallis was transported to Oklahoma when his owner was forced west as part of the massive Indian removal projects of the 1830s. The song’s history is thus interwoven within the history of Native Americans and their attempts to adapt to white society and resist the removal efforts completed under President Andrew Jackson.