Swing Low, Sweet Chariot meaning: What's the history of the song and why is it under review?

Emily Lawford
Evening Standard
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot has been the official anthem of the England rugby union team: AFP via Getty Images
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot has been the official anthem of the England rugby union team: AFP via Getty Images

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot has been the England rugby union team’s national anthem for more than a decade.

The song was first recorded more than 100 years ago.

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However, the song is being reviewed by the Rugby Football Union, due to its associations with slavery.

Here, we take a closer look at the history of the song, and why its use in rugby is controversial.

Fans sang the song at Twickenham in 1987 (PA)
Fans sang the song at Twickenham in 1987 (PA)

What is the history behind the song?

The song is believed to be written by a black ex-slave called Wallace Willis in the late 19th century, in Choctaw County, Oklahoma. A minister at a Choctaw boarding school heard Willis singing and transcribed the song. He sent it to the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, who popularised the song, and made the first known recording of it in 1909. The song had a revival in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement and the folk revival. It was performed by Joan Baez during the 1969 Woodstock festival. The song was made the official Oklahoma state gospel song in 2011.

In 1987, rugby fans at Twickenham sang the song during a Middlesex Sevens tournament when Martin “Chariots” Offiah – whose nickname is a play on words with the sporting film Chariots of Fire – played. The song became popular among England supporters when Chris Oti scored a hat-trick against Ireland.

What do the lyrics of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot mean?

The lyrics of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot are believed to be about an enslaved person desiring freedom or death instead of slavery.

Willis, who worked near the Red River, may have been reminded of the Jordan River and the death of the Prophet Elijah.

The lyrics “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” are reminiscent of Elijah in 2 Kings being taken to heaven in a chariot.

However, some people believe that the song refers to the Underground Railroad, the freedom movement that helped black people escape from slavery in the South to Canada and the North.

Why is the Rugby Football Union reviewing its use?

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) is reviewing fans’ use of the song, as it says many do not know about its links with slavery.

A spokesperson for the RFU said the organisation needs to do more to “grow awareness”.

“We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions,” they said.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which has had a resurgence following the death of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis, has been embraced in several sports. Premier League footballers took a knee on Wednesday in support of the movement.

Last week World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi, who is the only black person on the RFU council, said the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer, had led to “powerful conversations”.

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