Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

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"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"
Page from The Jubilee Singers, 1873.
Written byWallace Willis
WrittenPrior to 1862
FormAfrican-American spiritual
Original artistFisk Jubilee Singers
(Earliest attested)
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"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"
Page from The Jubilee Singers, 1873.
Written byWallace Willis
WrittenPrior to 1862
FormAfrican-American spiritual
Original artistFisk Jubilee Singers
(Earliest attested)
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Performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers

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"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is a historic American Spiritual song. The earliest known recording was in 1909, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. It is also the anthem of the England national Rugby Union team.

In 2002, the Library of Congress honored the song as one of 50 recordings chosen that year to be added to the National Recording Registry. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.


"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was written by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian Territory in what is now Choctaw County, near the County seat of Hugo, Oklahoma sometime before 1862. He was inspired by the Red River, which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the Prophet Elijah's being taken to heaven by a chariot (2 Kings 2:11). Many sources[1][2] claim that this song and "Steal Away"[3] (also composed by Willis) had lyrics that referred to the Underground Railroad, the freedom movement that helped blacks escape from Southern Slavery to the North and Canada.

Alexander Reid, a minister at the Old Spencer Academy, Choctaw boarding school, heard Willis singing these two songs and transcribed the words and melodies. He sent the music to the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Jubilee Singers popularized the songs during a tour of the United States and Europe.

The song enjoyed a resurgence during the 1960s Civil Rights struggle and the folk revival; it was performed by a number of artists. Perhaps the most famous performance during this period was that by Joan Baez during the legendary 1969 Woodstock festival.

Oklahoma State Senator, Judy Eason McIntyre from Tulsa, Oklahoma proposed a bill nominating "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" as the Oklahoma State official gospel song in 2011. The bill was co-sponsored by the Oklahoma State Black Congressional Caucus. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed the bill into law on May 5, 2011, at a ceremony at the Oklahoma Cowboy Hall of Fame; making the song the official Oklahoma State Gospel Song.[citation needed]

Traditional lyrics[edit]


Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.


Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)


The brightest day that I can say,
(Coming for to carry me home)
When Jesus washed my sins away.
(Coming for to carry me home)


If you get there before I do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
Tell all my friends I'm coming too.
(Coming for to carry me home)


Notable cover versions[edit]

Another early recording was by the Apollo Jubilee Quartette on Monday, February 26, 1912, Columbia Records (A1169), New York.[4][5]

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has been sung by many artists. A partial list includes:

Notable allusions in other songs[edit]

Swing low Alabama
Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track
Hear the banjo. Don't it take you down home?

I looked over Jordan, and I've seen
Things are not what they seem

and then in "Bravery of Being out of Range" from Amused to Death (1992):

I looked over Jordan and what did I see?
Saw a U.S. Marine in a pile of debris

Swing down sweet chariot
The flesh will fall and the bones will rot
But from my sorrow you'll carry me not
My heart is bound, my soul is chained to the rock.

Swing low,
Swing low
Swing low and carry me home

Sweet chariots of L.A. swing low
At twilight time the smog makes a rainbow
So keep one eye on the weather
You had it good, you wanted better
You know? You know?

Swing low,
Swing low, sweet chariot

The lyrics are sung in the background behind:

if the Divine master plan is perfection,
maybe next I’ll give Judas a try

I jumped in the river and what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me

Swing low, sweet cherry,
Make it awful

and later,

Swing low, cherry, cherry
Yeah, it's awful

I dig my chariot, dig my crib
And my long black Cadillac
Coming for to carry me home

Swang down, sweet chariot

Swing low, sweet chariot
Carry me home

If you should go there before I do (God's gonna trouble the water)
Tell all my friends that I'm coming too (God's gonna trouble the water)
And sometimes I'm up, Lord, and sometimes I'm down (God's gonna trouble the water)
Sometimes I'm almost level with the ground (God's gonna trouble the water)

Use in rugby union[edit]

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has been sung by rugby players and fans for some decades,[9] and there are associated gestures, sometimes used in a drinking game, which requires those who wrongly perform the gestures to buy a round of drinks.[10][11] It became associated with the English national side, in particular, in 1988. Coming into the last match of the 1988 season, against Ireland at Twickenham, England had lost 15 of their previous 23 matches in the Five Nations Championship. The Twickenham crowd had only seen one solitary England try in the previous two years and at half time against Ireland they were 0–3 down. However during the second half England scored six tries to give them a 35–3 win. Three of the tries came in quick succession from Chris Oti, a black player making his Twickenham debut. A group of boys from the Benedictine school Douai following a tradition at their school games sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" whenever a try was scored. When Oti scored his second try, amused spectators standing close to the boys joined in, and when Oti scored his hat-trick the song was heard around the ground.[9][12][13] The song is still regularly sung at matches by English supporters.[14]

The England national rugby union team returned from the 2003 World Cup triumph in Australia on a plane dubbed "Sweet Chariot".[15]

Recordings associated with England's participation at the Rugby World Cup[edit]

"Swing Low"
Single by UB40 featuring United Colours of Sound
B-sideSwing Low (Stadium mix)
LabelDEP International DEPDJ58
Writer(s)Charlie Skarbek, Traditional
Producer(s)Charlie Skarbek

The song became the England Rugby World Cup theme for 1991, when performed by "Union featuring the England World Cup Squad". It reached no. 16 on the UK singles chart.

The song was then covered in 1995 for that year's tournament by British pop/reggae duo China Black together with South African male choral group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It reached no. 15 on the chart, selling 200,000 copies – and South Africa won the tournament.

1999's tournament saw Russell Watson record a version which had less success, only peaking at no. 38 on the UK chart.

The song enjoyed more success in 2003's tournament, when recorded by UB40 and the United Colours of Sound. It originally peaked at no. 23, but following England's victory in the tournament returned to reach no. 15.[16][17]

A new version was recorded by Blake for the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

For 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand popular all-girl group Our Lady Muse (O.L.M) released an England Rugby World Cup Song. An upbeat party anthem version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – The Song was premiered at the "Polo Rocks" concert in aid of The Prince's Trust.

Use in popular culture[edit]

In the Marx Brothers film "Room Service" (1938), Groucho, Harpo, and Chico sing over the "dead" body of Mr. Davis and it's sung again at the end of the movie.

In the 1932 film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the song is sung by a congregation of black church-goers as the prison mates are led into the pews.

In 1948, Adelaide Hall sang a version of the song in the British movie called A World is Turning, intended to highlight the contribution of black men and women to British society at a time when they were struggling for visibility on our screens. Only six reels of rushes remain of the movie, including scenes of Hall performing at London's Nightingale Club and Hall singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Filming appears to have been halted due to the director's illness.[6]

The song was used in Comedy Central's 2005 series Stella, episode "Vegetables" starring Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. The song is sung by the cast as they work out in a field picking vegetables.

Chevy Chase sings an excerpt from the song in both National Lampoon's Vacation from 1983 and Fletch from 1985.

In Eastenders the song was sung at Denise Wicks' "funeral."

In the 1984 comedy film Revenge of the Nerds, when the nerds give their first party for seemingly African American fraternity, Lewis Skolnick puts this song on in an effort to impress the fraternity head, Lamar Latrell quickly changes the song.

In the 1987 comedy film Spaceballs, the princess sings the song while she is in prison.

In the 1997 film Con Air, racially motivated criminal 'Diamond Dog' Jones sings the chorus of this song whilst pointing his gun at the captured prison guards.

In the 1993 film Addams Family Values, Gomez sings the song when faced with his family in ruins.

In an early edition of Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog, Rotor starts to sing the song when the Freedom Fighters fear Dr. Robotnik is about to use an atomic bomb on them.

In Garfield: The Movie, the titular cat sings this song when he is locked in a cage.

In the TV Series Bones, in the episode "The Double Death of the Dearly Departed", Seeley Booth starts singing the song in order to break up a fight at a funeral as well as create a diversion for the team's investigation.

In the HBO original series Oz (TV series), Omar White practices the Chorus line numerous times.

In the TV series Scrubs (S08e07 – "My New Role"), Elliot is chastised for having sung the song at karaoke. Later in the show, she is seen singing the song and is slowly approached by a bewildered-looking black doctor. Elliot cheerfully says Hi and continues singing.

In Psych, Gus performs an a cappella version of the song with his former bandmates from college at the funeral of one of the members.

In the Prison Break episode "And Then There Were 7," T-Bag sings the song to deliberately annoy another inmate, Benjamin Miles "C-Note" Franklin, who is African-American.

In the Futurama episode "A Tale of Two Santas", Bender sings the song while being executed by massive electromagnets.

In Mel Brooks' film Blazing Saddles, Lyle tells the black laborers to sing and recommends this song. Unable to recognise it, they mutter to each other and look back at him in dismay, then respond with a swing acapella of Cole Porter’s ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You,’ a 1934 song about cocaine. Then Lyle and the white track bosses demonstrate 'Camptown Races' in silly song and dance.

On the television series Girlfriends, Veretta Childs (Jenifer Lewis) sings the song to her daughter Toni (Jill Marie Jones) in the final scene on the fifth season episode, aired in May 2005, "The Bridges of Fresno County"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Walls, Bryan. "UNDERGROUND RAILROAD TERMINOLOGY". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 3 July 2013. 
  2. ^ Eversley, Melanie (12 August 2006). "Story behind spiritual 'Sweet Chariot' emerges". USA Today. Retrieved 3 July 2013. 
  3. ^ "A Guide to The Underground Railroad in New Jersey". Njstatelib. Retrieved 3 July 2013. 
  4. ^ Dixon, Robert M. W. Blues and Gospel Records: 1890–1943 (Blues and Gospel Records), Oxford University Press (1997), page 23 – ISBN 0-19-816239-1
  5. ^ Brooks, Tim. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890–1919, University of Illinois Press (2004), page 258 – ISBN 0-252-02850-3
  6. ^ a b Video on YouTube
  7. ^ Al Hirt, Horn A-Plenty Retrieved April 8, 2013.
  8. ^ http://www.musica.co.za/cd/id/6009143495036/David_Van-Vuuren-Free_The_Animals Retrieved 4 February 2014
  9. ^ a b "The story behind "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and how it became a rugby anthem.". everyhit.com. Retrieved 2007-10-08. 
  10. ^ Hash House Harriers, Hash Songs,Ankara Hash House Harriers Retrieved 2009-02-07
  11. ^ Hugh Farrelly. Oti the man to blame as 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' continues to roll, Irish Independent 13 March 2008
  12. ^ "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". rfu.com. Archived from the original on 25 October 2007. Retrieved August 2007. 
  13. ^ Oliver Price Blood, mud and aftershave in The Observer Sunday February 5, 2006, Section O is for Oti
  14. ^ Holden, Jim (16 March 2014). "Italy 11 - England 52: Stuart Lancaster's men end with a flourish". Sunday Express. 
  15. ^ England rugby heroes head home BBC, 24 November 2003
  16. ^ "UK Charts - UB40". www.officialcharts.com. Retrieved 2013-06-14. 
  17. ^ "Swing Low". www.discogs.com. Retrieved 2013-06-14. 

External links[edit]