Swing low, sweet chariot
Origins. This spiritual, one of the best known spirituals in circulation, was first printed in Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University (NY: Biglow & Main, 1872 | Fig. 1). The Jubilee Singers were students at Fisk, most of whom had been former slaves. George Leonard White (1838–1895), Fisk’s treasurer and music professor, gathered the group and took them on tour to help raise money for the school, leaving Nashville, Tennessee on 6 October 1871. During a successful campaign stop in New York City, they established a connection with publisher Biglow & Main. The task of transcribing the group’s songs fell to Theodore Seward (1835–1902), a prominent musician and music editor at the time. This first published collection for Fisk contained 24 songs. In the preface, Seward declared his confidence in his ability to capture the songs in standard music notation:
The public may feel assured that the music herein given is entirely correct. It was taken down from the singing of the band, during repeated interviews held for the purpose, and no line or phrase was introduced that did not receive full endorsement from the singers. Some of the phrases and turns in the melodies are so peculiar that the listener might not unreasonably suppose them to be incapable of exact representation by ordinary musical characters. It is found, however, that they all submit to the laws of musical language, and if they are sung or played exactly as written, all the characteristic effects will be reproduced.
From this collection, “Swing low, sweet chariot” was reprinted in The Christian Weekly, 4 May 1872 (vol. 2, no. 18, p. 210 | PDF), with a brief story about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The writer of the article felt very differently about the ability of the written score to convey the full experience of hearing the group sing:
Their voices, though very sweet, could never enchain and thrill as they do by the simple power of concordant sounds. They are nature’s rendering of the great miserere of humanity. They are not mere slave songs; nor yet the songs of the emancipated. They are still more, the songs of the ransomed children of God. In every one is the deep undertone of a tender and true Christian experience.
We give, with this article, one of their most characteristic melodies, but the type cannot interpret its full meaning. Our readers may, by the aid of the piano or the melodeon, get a glimpse of the quaint, weird music, but only those who in earth’s sorrow have longed for the coming of the chariot of the Lord can comprehend the song as it is sung by the Jubilee Singers themselves.
John Wesley Work Jr. (1873–1925), in his book Folk Song of the American Negro (Nashville: Fisk University, 1915), pp. 78-82 (Google Books), relayed a story about the possible genesis of this song, involving a young slave mother in Tennessee, Sarah Hannah Sheppard, who in a bout of despair had intended to kill herself and her newborn baby rather than allow it to be raised into a life of slavery. On her way to throw herself and the child into the Cumberland River, muttering, “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave,” an older slave woman stopped her:
In love, she laid her dear old hand upon the shoulder of the distressed mother and said, “Don’t you do it, honey; wait, let de chariot of de Lord swing low, and let me take one of de Lord’s scrolls an’ read it to you.” Then, making a motion as reaching for something, and unrolling it, she read, “God’s got a great work for dis baby to do; she’s goin’ to stand befo’ kings and queens. Don’t you do it, honey.” The mother was so impressed with the words of the old “mammy” she gave up her fell design and allowed herself to be taken off [sold] down into Mississippi, leaving her baby behind. These two songs [“Before I’d be a slave,” “Swing low”] grew by degrees, as they passed from mouth to mouth, until they reached their present state. That prophecy of the old “mammy” was literally fulfilled. After the war, the baby girl [Ella Sheppard] entered Fisk University and was a member of the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who stood before kings and queens.
Analysis. The chorus of the song alludes to the story of the prophet Elijah being taken into heaven by a chariot of fire in 2 Kings 2:1-12. In the first stanza, the description of looking over the Jordan River into heaven is possibly a reference to the river of life in Revelation 22:1-12. Even though the river of Rev. 22 is not named Jordan in the Bible, the name is often used as a shorthand allusion for that purpose in other spirituals and gospel songs. The song may have carried other sentiments and meanings for American slaves, whether broadly, as a general desire for freedom, or more specifically, relating to being rescued by the Underground Railroad.
Musically, the song is relatively simple. The melody is pentatonic. It has a full chorus/refrain (“Swing low, sweet chariot”) and an interlinear refrain (“Coming for to carry me home”), making it suitable for a soloist to provide the verses, while a large group would respond with the repeated elements. The harmony, apparently sung only during the group response, always resolves to the tonic chord, with a penultimate dominant chord.
Earliest Recording. A recording of the Fisk Jubilee Singers singing “Swing low, sweet chariot” in 1909 has been digitized and preserved by the Document Records company (DOCD 5533, In Chronological Order, vol. 1 | Amazon | iTunes). These students would not have known the extreme pathos of slavery, being almost 50 years removed, so something is likely lost in this performance compared to what audiences would have first heard. This version has been chorally arranged for concert hall purposes, possibly by John Wesley Work Jr. or his brother, Frederick Jerome Work (1880–1942).
Proliferation & Development. Like many spirituals, “Swing low, sweet chariot” has enjoyed success both via hymn-like settings in hymnals and songbooks, and via specialized arrangements for the concert hall. For example, this spiritual appeared in songbooks as early as 1890 in Rescue Songs, compiled by Henry Hadley (NY: S.T. Gordon & Son | Hymnary.org). One early, important performer and arranger of concert spirituals was Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949). Burleigh arranged “Swing low” for solo voice and piano accompaniment in 1917 for publisher G. Ricordi & Co. (HathiTrust). In his notes to the arrangement, Burleigh offered his advice and insight into this repertoire:
Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit; and then rhythm, for the Negro’s soul is linked with rhythm, and it is an essential characteristic of most all the Folk Songs. … Through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man—every man—will be free.
Early Variants. Another related version of this spiritual was published only a year after the Fisk version, this one in Spirituelles: (Unwritten songs of South Carolina) sung by the Carolina singers (Philadelphia: Alfred Martien, 1873 | Fig. 2). As the cover reads, “They are students of the Fairfield Normal Institute, near Columbia, S.C. Their object is to raise funds to meet its pressing wants. They sing the weird songs of the colored people, as they learned them in the days of slavery. Written for the first time, from memory, by the Carolina Singers.” This printing of “Swing low, sweet chariot” did not contain music, only words, so the musical similarity is impossible to determine, but the text is mostly identical. All four of the verses are the same, except the interlinear refrain, “coming for to carry me home” changes as the song progresses.
The following year, a song called “Swing low, sweet chariot” appeared in the collection of spirituals appended to Hampton and Its Students (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1874 | Fig. 3), transcribed by Thomas P. Fenner (1829–1912) from the singers at the Hampton Normal Institute (later Hampton University). This version, although it carries the same opening phrase and a similar sentiment, has a very different melody, although it is pentatonic and is limited to tonic and dominant harmonies, like the Fisk version.
In spite of these regional variants, the Fisk version is the one that has endured in the broader popular culture.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
26 September 2018
rev. 22 October 2018
“Swing low, sweet chariot” at Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson & Eileen Guenther, “Swing low, sweet chariot,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
The Fisk Jubilee Singers: