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.
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.
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?