Two years later, the same newspaper devoted an edition of its mail-in reader question-and-answer column to the question of why the chant took hold. In response, one reader wrote, “It was often sung by a white crowd when black players were playing well — a backhanded compliment in my view.” Another called it “slightly racist but in the best possible taste.”
In the United States, the song was first formally published as a written text in the 1870s, appearing in songbooks for the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, a black choir that put on singing tours throughout the United States and Europe. Such concerts, presumably, first carried black spirituals to wider audiences overseas. By the early 20th century, “Swing Low” was becoming popular among the all-male choirs of Wales.
In the 1950s, at the same time that slave-era spirituals were having a reawakening as part of the American civil rights movement, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was becoming a popular drinking song in the rugby clubs and pubs of Britain, where the lyrics were often accompanied by a series of bawdy gestures.
“It was sung after club matches, particularly if people had a few beers and are being sociable and having a singsong,” said Richard Woodley, 46, an England fan from Newark, in Nottinghamshire, who played rugby in his youth.
The song’s move in England from the barroom to the biggest stage of professional rugby changed its nature further still. After its spontaneous appearance in the Twickenham stands, it persisted, taking on a life of its own, and eventually the Rugby Football Union, the governing body for the sport in England, embraced it as a central component of its marketing. Before the 1991 World Cup, the England players participated in a jazzy promotional version called “Swing Low (Run With The Ball).”
The rugby union later commissioned UB40 — the reggae-pop band famous for “Red Red Wine” — to record another version of the song before the 2003 World Cup. When England won, the song rushed up the charts. Two years ago, in a news release announcing a new version of the song by the English singer Ella Eyre, a union official said, “Owned by the fans, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ is a song that is unique to England Rugby and has the power to instill a sense of hope and drive England teams forward when it’s sung at Twickenham.”
Sponsors joined in, too. In 2003, after England won the World Cup in Australia, British Airways noted in a news release that the “appropriately named Sweet Chariot 747 came for to carry the victorious England team home.” More recently, BMW built similar marketing campaigns around the conceit that its cars were “Sweet Chariots.”
“It’s really the song of England rugby,” said Josh Rice, 25, a fan from Nottingham.
Arthur Jones, a music history professor and founder of the Spiritual Project at the University of Denver, said the situation reminded him of American sports teams who use Native American names and imagery, in that a group of people seemed to be free-associating with imagery largely disconnected from its history.
“My first reaction is absolute shock — and I actually understand it when I think about it — but that’s my first reaction,” Jones said. “I feel kind of sad. I feel like the story of American chattel slavery and this incredible cultural tradition, built up within a community of people who were victims and often seen as incapable of standing up for themselves, is such a powerful story that I want the whole world to know about it. But apparently not everyone does.”
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