Wallis Willis, 1840s (popularized by Jubilee singers)
(Minstrel Shows 1840s-1870s)
Maddie Cree, Michelle Ruoff, Matthew Turley
Freedman Wallis Willis originally wrote, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the 1840s. It has a rich history as an African American spiritual with close ties to the Underground Railroad, with longstanding speculation that certain secret lyrics within the song provided a guide. Before being transcribed by Willis in the late 1800s, the song had a strong oral tradition. After Willis wrote the song down, it was sent to the African American acapella group the Fisk Jubilee singers of Fisk University in 1909, who recorded the song and gave it widespread popularity through their extensive tours in both America and Europe. The song experienced a large revival, after fading from the public, in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. Several artists performed and recorded the song, including Joan Baez who famously performed the song at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. Since then “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has been considered a staple gospel song both being performed as a hymn and as a choral arrangement. The song itself has undergone a transformation through its history. What started as a slow, soulful acapella arrangement has since seen revival as a jubilant fast paced gospel song with added instrumentation. Beyond the original song taking on new life, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has been sampled in various other songs, including choral medleys and other hymns. The transformation from slow and deep to fast and exciting can be seen by comparing the original Fisk Singers recording in 1909 with the surprisingly modern rendition performed by artist Beyoncé in the 2003 film “The Fighting Temptations”. The change in both tempo and enthusiasm in vocals can reflect the history of the song. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has been a song of hope in every time frame it has appeared in. It’s roots in the Underground Railroad have given the song a powerful meaning as its message molds itself to every situation it has been sung in. From a song carrying a message of freedom from slavery, to a song that carries the hopefulness of the Civil Rights movement, to today
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was a relatively standard spiritual anthem that fit closely with the themes of the 19th century. While it was extremely popular and did not have any straightforward controversy, there was some discretion as to the roots of this song. On one end, the song spoke of African American slavery and the Underground Railroad, but some found its roots in Native American slavery. However, the two worlds collided when it was believed that Wallis Willis wrote the song about his Native American slavery experience and eventually passed it on to the African Americans. The song was particularly popular with enslaved African Americans in the south and those involved with the Underground Railroad. The song also gained popularity from white audiences in America and Europe through the Jubilee singers. African Americans enjoyed the song by word of mouth, however the Jubilee singers exposed American and European audiences to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and other spirituals by going on tour to help raise money to save Fisk University. The song was linked to the Underground Railroad and the freedom movement that helped blacks escape from Southern slavery. With these themes, the song was able to enjoy two different meanings, one that instilled hope in slaves and one that offered secret strategies and maps needed to escape. This song was pretty straightforward with its moment in culture, it revealed how overwhelming slavery was at this time and how it really impacted everyone.
It is believed that Mississippi slave Wallace Willis wrote “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” when the government forced Choctaw Indians to move from west Tennessee and northern Mississippi to southern Oklahoma somewhere between the late 1830s and the early 1840s. In southern Oklahoma Wallace was rented out to a school for Native Americans and the school’s head master shared it and the song spread rapidly. The song caught on at the time because there was a lot of people being forced to move or wanting to move, the lyrics “A band of angels coming after me, coming to carry me home” was originally used to represent the force migration of Native Americans from their home state to Oklahoma. The song caught on even further before the beginning of reconstruction in the southern United States from slaves using it to represent being carried to freedom via the Under Ground Rail Road, or by dying and moving on to the next life.
In modern times Swing Low Sweet Chariot has become a fight song for England. The reason it became the fight song is up for your own interpretation, but they lyrics of the song might be representing how the fans are wanting the team to carry them to victory.
Fisk Jubilee Singers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUvBGZnL9rE Fisk Jubilee Singers (1909) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gryfRoqbu4c Beyoncé (2003)