Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

On the Origin of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

Excerpted from: Blues People by Leroi Jones, Morrow Quill © 1963, P 44-49.

The music that was produced by Negro Christianity was the result of diverse influences. First of all, there was that music which issued from pure African ritual sources and which was changed to fit the new religion—just as the ring shouts were transformed from pure African religious dances to pseudo-Christian religious observances, or the Dahomey river cult ceremonies were incorporated into the baptism ceremony. Early observers also pointed out that a great many of the first Negro Christian religious songs had been taken almost untouched from the great body of African religious music. This was especially true of the melodies of certain Black Christian spirituals that could also be heard in some parts of Africa.

Maude Cuney-Hare, in book Negro Musicians and Their Music, cites the experience of a Bishop Fisher of Calcutta who traveled to Central Africa: "... in Rhodesia* he had heard natives sing a melody so closely resembling Swing Low, Sweet Chariot that he felt that he had found it in its original form: moreover, the region near the great Victoria Falls have a custom from which the song arose. When one of their chiefs, in the old days, was about to die, he was placed in a great canoe together with trappings that marked his rank, and food for his journey. The canoe was set afloat in midstream headed toward the great Falls and the vast column of mist that rises for them. Meanwhile the tribe on the shore would sing its chant of farewell. The legend is that on one occasion the king was seen to rise in his canoe at the very brink of the Falls and enter a chariot that, descending from the mists, bore him aloft. This incident gave rise to the words 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' and the song, brought to America by African slaves long ago, became anglicized and modified by their Christian faith." **

* Rhodesia is the former name of Zimbabwe.

** Op. cit., 69,