RFU chief Bill Sweeney reveals he will no longer sing 'Swing Low' — but would not think anyone who does is racist

Charlie Morgan
The Telegraph
Bill Sweeney watches a Premiership match - GETTY IMAGES
Bill Sweeney watches a Premiership match - GETTY IMAGES

Bill Sweeney, the Rugby Football Union’s chief executive, has said that he no longer sings Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, although he does not believe it to be racist.

Last week the RFU confirmed that its executive team, which includes Sweeney, would be conducting a review into the use of Swing Low and then making a recommendation to the board.

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Swing Low was written in about 1865 by a former slave, Wallace Willis. It was sung around English rugby clubhouses in the 1960s and 70s, before being used at Twickenham from 1987.

A spokesman for the RFU body acknowledged that it “is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or sensitivities”. In an interview for the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast, Sweeney outlined his own viewpoint and cited American academic Josephine Wright.

“My own personal point of view, and I used to sing it a lot in the 70s, is that I wouldn’t sing it,” he said.

“I wouldn’t sing it and I’d recommend everyone to listen to Josephine Wright. She’s a professor in the US and understands this topic really, really well and talks powerfully to it.

“I, personally, would choose not to sing it but if there was somebody sitting next to me singing it, I wouldn’t think they were racist.

“I would think, ‘OK, they don’t feel it’s an issue and they’re singing that song’. You need a smattering of common sense and a bit of responsibility here.”

In an appearance on The Rugby Union Show on Sky Sports last week, Wright, a professor of music and black studies at The College of Wooster in Ohio, explained that Swing Low was an "alerting song".

Its double-meanings became a way for slaves to communicate “under the watchful eye of slave-owners without fear of reprisal”. She also suggested that more comprehensive education of Swing Low was vital.

“Most definitely, there needs to be more education and exposure to primary sources is the best instructor of this,” said Wright, who added that she would not feel comfortable about it being sung even with improved awareness of its origins and meaning.

“Many of these slave narratives are available on the internet and if you read about the horror of slave life and how people had to struggle to retain a sense of community and a sense of self-worth, I think that will give people pause when they seize upon historical songs that record the suffering and misery of over four million people held in bondage in the United States.”

Discouraging the use of Swing Low would require a significant branding overhaul for the RFU, which has used the moniker Carry Them Home across official marketing and media channels, and around Twickenham stadium, to drum up support for England teams since 2014.

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