Reparations Archive

Our Most Recent Spiritual Performance

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

by the Chalice Choir

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is one of the most treasured and widely-recognized African-American spirituals.

It was placed in the National Archives of the Library of Congress - identified as one of THE historical “Songs of the 20th Century”.  The wonderful and important Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, popularized this and many other spirituals during their concert tours.  Swing Low, Sweet Chariot had a resurgence during the 1960’s Civil Rights era and folk revival.  Like many older spirituals, the specific history of the composition is a bit cloudy.  But we think it was written by one Wallis Willis, who was actually a Choctaw Native American slave from a Territory in Oklahoma.  He may have been inspired by the sight of the Red River, where he toiled, as it reminded him of the River Jordan and the Prophet Elijah ascending to heaven on a chariot.  The song uses the theme of death to remind the audience of the glory that awaits in heaven, when Christians believe they will transcend Earthly suffering.  Originally a call and response song, the spiritual uses rhetoric poetic imagery to help bring the performers AND listeners into a state of ecstasy and connection with the holy spirit.

Many spirituals of course, contained coded language or secret meanings that assisted slaves in specific strategies - sometimes even maps to facilitate escape.  Think “Follow the Drinking Gourd” which were the stars of the Big Dipper or “Wade in the Water”, which taught slaves how to throw off the scent of chasing bloodhounds.  “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, apparently one of Harriet Tubman’s favorites, suggests in code that another conductor would soon be coming to “carry them home” to freedom.  In this song, due to the complicated history of the Choctaw native Willis, the piece’s power might lie in the idea that it was born in the convergence of TWO tragedies in American history:  the horrors of African slavery AND the injustice of Native American removal.