This is all a bit difficult, this Swing Low, Sweet Chariot stuff really

It is a famous refrain and melody. For many in the United States, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” enjoys a hallowed status as one of the cherished of 19th-century African-American spirituals, its forlorn lyrics invoking the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race.

But here, across the Atlantic, the song has developed a parallel existence, unchanged in form but utterly different in function, as a boisterous drinking song turned sports anthem.


“Such cross-cultural appropriations of U.S. slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave,” she said.

Well, yes:

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.

And yes:

But Williams laughed when asked if those pieces reflected a larger debate occurring in the rugby community. “The typical crowd that goes to watch the English national rugby team is not likely to be an audience that’s going to think hard about these types of questions or spend much time worrying about political correctness,” he said.

But here’s the thing you see. Aren’t we English entirely and solely responsible for the horrors of chattel slavery in the first place? So what culture are we appropriating if it isn’t our own?

45 thoughts on “This is all a bit difficult, this Swing Low, Sweet Chariot stuff really”

  1. For once I agree with the NYT. The song is a disgrace and any matches where it is sung should be abandoned immediately with the team associated with these racist supporters forfeiting the points.

  2. Do the Douai old boys actually say that they sang it in honour of Chris Oti? I thought the claim was that it was a traditional rugby song that they happened to sing because England were playing well for once.

    One thing everyone seems to overlook is that Swing Low, at least as sung at Twickenham, is monotonous and therefore doesn’t require much talent to sing along to. Which is also the best argument against replacing GSTQ with Jerusalem.

  3. If Wikipedia is to be believed (always a bit dubious), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was written after 1865, i.e. after slavery had been abolished in the US, so describing it as a slave song is historically inaccurate.

    And as for Tim’s “Aren’t we English entirely and solely responsible for the horrors of chattel slavery in the first place?”, the answer is no, it existed long before anyone called themselves English. Even in the specific case of using sub-Saharan Africans as slaves, we got that from the Arabs, along with sensible numbers, algebra and distilled alcohol.

  4. I thought the English people interviewed were very polite. The question of cultural appropriation is one that can really only be answered by ‘Fuck off.’

  5. Do the Douai old boys actually say that they sang it in honour of Chris Oti? I thought the claim was that it was a traditional rugby song that they happened to sing because England were playing well for once.

    It can be both, of course.

    For the song to break out semi-spontaneously at Twickenham, the singers would have had to be fairly familiar with the words and tune. And the people that started the singing at that occasion could have done so in honour of Mr Oti.

  6. Fro non-regular readers, Mr. Newman is Welsh…..

    However, Wales is part of the Kingdom of England, so Tim N’s attitude is incomprehensible.

    And this is why Wales v England can be so awkward: neither side really wanting to win and so on. It’s Serena v Venus without the physicality.

  7. There are many, many reasons to attack English rugby but this is scraping the barrel. Smacks of grievance mining once again, the Left’s most successful industry.

  8. Yep. obscene hand gestures and so on. Been sung in rugby clubs for decades.

    The ‘version’ sung at Twickenham is just an endless repeat of the title lines. No ‘bands of angels’ or mention of the river Jordan.

    Interestingly (from Wikipedia so caveats abound) the supposed writer of the song was one Wallis Willis who was a Choctaw Freedman. The Choctaw were a Native American tribe who, like most Native American tribes, kept slaves captured in war but also adopted the “white man’s ways” and bought and sold slaves, including Europeans and Africans. The Choctaw sided with the confederacy during the American Civil war having been promised an Indian nation if they won. After the civil war, former slaves of the Choctaw were known as Choctaw Freedmen.

    SO…….if the origin of the song is as reported the ‘darkness and oppression’ of the former slave who wrote the song was inflicted by Native Americans and not the white man!


    And for the Welsh? We English have nothing but condescending sympathy for you. You played quite well considering all your breeding difficulties but just weren’t quite good enough. Never mind, jolly good show and better luck next year.

  9. I support rugby in fact I coach mini rugby bawl abuse at my tackle shy idle boys ( continuing a cycle of abuse) and embellish my own pitiful career absurdly( I was a brilliant mercurial wing three –quarter … etc) . On occasion I watch Harlequins and have seen the odd International.
    I do take an interest in slavery, American black music and cultural questions related to race,
    Rugby is a great game and all sorts of people watch and enjoy it not just fat little estate agents who voted Brexit. Just saying .
    R and B has itself recycled spirituals , one of the great Northern soul hits “ Wade In The Water” was associate with escape form the South but became a super stomper in Northern UK Cities in the late sixties .

    I recommend a listen to the Marlena Shaw version

  10. Welsh!!!!!!!!!!!

    You mean me? If so that’s a low and unpleasant accusation which has no basis in truth whatsoever.
    Ye gods have you no shame ?

  11. Ah, Newmania… bless. Behind your idiosyncratic punctuation you make a good point and recommend a good track.

    I’m a bit confused by the Brexit comment though; surely it was thick Northern racists who voted Leave?

    I do take an interest in slavery, American black music and cultural questions related to race

    I’d stick with the middle one if I were you. Unless you hang out in US liberal arts colleges.

  12. Swing Low should be banned purely because it’s a monotonous dirge when sung by the moronic England fans. Something akin to another monotonous Dirge sung at Anfield…………………….

  13. The Meissen Bison

    Cultural appropriation, eh?

    Well how about turning O Tannenbaum into the lefty anthem of ghastly (but failed) aspiration.

    @newmania – no, not you. Would you like it always to be about you?

  14. Philip Scott Thomas

    I, for one, find Newmania’s quaintly idiosyncratic approach to punctuation rather charming.

  15. Regardless of the origins, culture evolves through time. The meaning of a song to different people evolves with it.

    This is nothing to do with cultural appropriation. It is a naked attempt to freeze the meaning of the song to one interpretation which not coincidentally, is fashionable among contemporary “progressives”: ‘You can’t think of this in any way except the way that I decide.’

    No thanks.

  16. I do take an interest in slavery,

    I hear there’s something for all tastes on the Intartubes.

    American black music

    How very dare you! That’s *their* music. You’re not allowed to listen to it or like it – that’s CULTURAL APPROPRIATION!!!

    and cultural questions related to race

    My interest is limited to the question of “won’t you finally just shut up about it please?”.

  17. Lets take the gloves off here and ban blacks from driving cars, using any electric lights or appliances, attending universities or being inoculated against infectious diseases just for fvcking starters, none of which developments they had any hand in and which they have culturally appropriated from Western crackers.

  18. NewRemainia: Fat estate agents who stand up for their nation are heroes compared with scummy Sports faux-patriots who run around with St George flags and fuckwit painted faces for a load of sporting shite but stab their country in the back out of self-interest when the chips are down.

  19. Didn’t the Americans nick a perfectly good british drinking song for their National Anthem? Quid pro quo.

  20. I always thought ‘Swing Low’ was sympathetic to the travails of English rugby sides being permanently oppressed by much better Welsh sides featuring infuriatingly clever players like JPR Williams.

  21. I think you lot have got the wrong end of the stick. Of course it’s ‘cultural appropriation’. But that’s not a bad thing.

    FWIW, the majority of the Rastafari religion is one big load of cultural appropriation. That’s also fine.

  22. “DBC Reed

    Welsh sides featuring infuriatingly clever players like JPR Williams”

    I see that your knowledge of rugby as well as politics and economics is stuck in the 1970s.

  23. Meiac: Take it to Twitter numpty.

    Or actually contribute. But then trying to write long sentences actually about the thread lets people see what a lackwit mental case you are.

    A sample of the wit and wisdom of Meiac: ” His predilection for young, illiterate, illegal immigrant children made sh/it publish sh/it’s safe word around in those ‘fulfillment’ circles, just in case sh/it wasn’t strong enough for their innocent attentions.”

    Sir Ernest Gowers himself couldn’t have put it any clearer.

  24. Ah yes, Mr Ecks. Your safe word, since the thread mentioned 50 shades. It’s all true though, isn’t it? You’ve never denied it under oath, therefore it must be true. See Trump

    As for contributions to the conversation – “Fat estate agents who stand up for their nation are heroes…”.

    Your heroes are fat estate agents.

    You need to admit you’re a totalitarian cunt who wants a totalitarian revolution to purge everything you don’t like, including several references to things that don’t even exist.

    You are a gift that keeps on giving, like a thick SMFS. And that really is an achievement. Well done!

  25. I blame that prime cultural appropriator, Eric Clapton. I was one of the few to buy his 1975 album ‘There’s one in every crowd’ and therefore one of that small number to know it includes a version of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot.’ But we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, spread the word far and wide.

  26. Clapton’s version was reggaefied, which WASPs obviously couldn’t handle, nor could our wives / mistresses / friends with benefits handle the backing vocals or our penny whistles replicate the guitar solo.

  27. The one that I like is that the Boy Scouts of America have it down as a Traditional Scout Song for 100 years or so to sing round camp fires (along with My Grandfathers Clock and Oh Susanna).

    And they didn’t fully racially integrate until 1974.

    The issue here is that the NYT has too many politically correct arseholes.

  28. Is the expression ‘Negro Spirituals’ still allowed? We used to sing Swing Low at school when it was so described. Bloody awful song, mind, but enormously improved by being sung by laddies whose voices were breaking.

  29. The song is nothing without the gestures. At the varsity, an American Rhodes scholar wondered why the rugby team sang that boring song when they could be singing properly bawdy ones. Once he saw the gestures he wondered why anyone bothered with performing anything else.

  30. @TMB

    Well how about turning O Tannenbaum into the lefty anthem of ghastly (but failed) aspiration.

    which in turn was re-appropriated as a rugby song of failed aspiration

    ‘Twas on Gibraltar’s rock so fair…

  31. Maybe they should play the original Robeson “Old Man River” over the PA at Twickenham. You know the one:
    “Niggaz all work on da Mississippi/
    Niggaz all work while da white man play”

    For the lolz

  32. FWIW the bawdy gestures version (and derivatives such as singing with with the gestures but while imitating someone else – doubletime, dambusters version, Ladies version …) is sung quite frequently in the USA and indeed all over the world where ever there’s a group of Hash House Harriers.

  33. @Dave

    The spelling was knowing. For the early (1920s) versions that was how it was pronounced. By 1936 it was bowdlerised to ‘Darkies’.

    Don’t think Robeson would think much of rappers tbh

  34. Henry Crun: You got it in one, although research has shown that only a minority of the attendees, and singers of said dirge, actually live in Liverpool.

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