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"Swing Low Sweet Chariot," Traditional

History of an American folk song


photo: Sami Sarkis/Getty Images
"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" (purchase/download Johnny Cash's version), while no certain composer is known, is often credited to Choctaw freedman Wallis Willis during mid- to late-19th Century. The earliest known recording was made by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the late 1800s.

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" Lyrics

The lyrics for "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," many believe, make reference to the Underground Railroad. The verses talk about being carried away toward freedom. While it's clear given the historical context that this could refer to liberation from slavery (Sometimes I'm up and sometimes I'm down ... But still my soul feels heavenly bound / Coming for to carry me home), it can also be interpreted as a standard spiritual about God and heaven (The brightest day that I can say ... When Jesus washed my sins away, / Coming for to carry me home).

The reference in the song to the "chariot" is consistent with many other songs of the the Underground Railroad period, which referred to trains and other modes of transportation that came along to help runaway slaves to freedom. Whether or not Willis intended the song for the Railroad, many sources contend that the song was sung by African-Americans making their way northward.

Adaptations of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

While the song has enjoyed great popularity in black churches and gospel choirs, it has also been adapted by England's rugby fans. Several versions have been recorded specifically for this purpose since the early 1990s.
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