Even back before it became a flashpoint in the culture wars, there were all sorts of stories about why, how and when the Twickenham crowd took to singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. For a long time it was supposed to have started as a spontaneous celebration of Chris Oti’s hat-trick against Ireland in 1988. Then a researcher turned up footage of fans singing it at the Middlesex Sevens in 1987, when Martin Offiah was playing for Rosslyn Park. Which fits, since his nickname was “Chariots” Offiah. In the past few weeks that seems to have become something like the official history. But the truth is not so neat.
Take this, from an article written by Ivor Turnbull published in Tatler on 26 November 1966: “One of the more agreeable vocal traditions of the West Park bar at Twickenham has disappeared as the result of the authorities’ decision to split the old 30-yards-long bar into something like a cell block. The West Bar was always the gathering place for the most determinedly cheerful supporters after a big game and it accounts for a fair proportion of the 20,000 pints that are consumed after an international.
“Sooner or later some group would start to sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and, in a minute or so, the several hundred beer-charged customers, already packed shoulder to shoulder, would sway as one man. As togetherness, it would have delighted Billy Graham.”
So they’ve been singing Swing Low at Twickenham since at least the mid-60s.
The real origins of the song go back a hundred years again and they’re pretty obscure, even though it’s often attributed to a Choctaw freedman called Wallace Willis. Arthur Jones, Professor Emeritus of Music, History, and Culture at the University of Denver explains: “I know there’s a story about Wallace Willis, but in the oral history there are just all kinds of accounts of this song having been a slave song, and Wallace probably learned it that way.”
Jones describes Swing Low as a signal song: “On one level it’s about people hoping they can escape their misery by riding on this imaginary chariot to heaven, but another clear meaning is the idea that the chariot is a metaphor for escaping to freedom.”
Jones has been singing these songs since he was a child. He set up the Spirituals Project to preserve and revitalise them. He knows nothing about rugby and didn’t know Swing Low had been adopted by England’s fans until a journalist told him in 2017. “When I first heard I was shocked, I was told that people sang it in pubs, and that it had evolved some blue connotations, and if that was true I felt like that was truly disrespectful.”
It is true, there are a set of idiotic gestures that used to sometimes go along with the song. It’s also true that you seldom – if ever – see fans using them any more.
Jones says there are “extremists who say ‘if you’re not black you can’t sing these songs’”. He disagrees. “That’s ridiculous. I feel like if the song is being sung by the fans when their team scores, if they know the origins, and want to borrow it, if it is a fun, positive thing for them to do, then that’s OK. But for people to vehemently distort its history, or claim it belongs to them, that’s really disrespectful.”
You couldn’t ban it anyway, (although the Nazi party did put it on a list of “undesired and harmful” songs). “You can’t contain something that has that much cultural power,” Jones says. “It has to be shared and even if you don’t want to share it, it is going to be shared.”
Swing Low has that power. Which is why it’s been sung by so many people, including Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. “Most of those artists would acknowledge that they love singing it but it’s a song that comes out of the African-American tradition of slave songs,” Jones says “It’s important to do that. One of the reasons why this topic is so sensitive is that one of the few things African-American people can claim that they own is their culture, like songs and stories and games, that originally didn’t have any money attached to them. So there is a lot of sensitivity attached to people taking them. It’s like you’re taking everything from us.
“Music does evolve, it changes. We have African-American opera singers who sing Puccini and Mozart, but they treat those songs with respect, they acknowledge the origins and they honour the roots of the music.”
That, beneath the inflammatory headlines, beyond all the back-and-forth of opinions, is the crux of it. The Rugby Football Union has commercialised this song and profited from it. While they are running reviews into its use they could look at some other things, too. Look at whether, for instance, they ought to do more to honour the forgotten black international Jimmy Peters. For 118 years, Peters was the only black man to play for England. There are still unanswered questions about whether the prejudice he faced cut short his international career.
Look at why, even though the England team is more diverse than it has ever been, the 14-person RFU board doesn’t have a single BAME member and why there is only one black person among the 61 on the RFU Council. Look at why Sport England’s recent Sport For All survey showed the Asian and Black communities were significantly under-represented in youth and adult rugby in England compared to other ethnic groups.
The RFU wants to improve “education and awareness” about Swing Low, that’s easy to do – consult experts, like Jones, put up plaques, put out films, take down sponsored banners. The more important part is far harder and that’s pushing through the structural change that honours the spirit of the song.