We don’t know for sure who created the popular African American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, though we do know it came to popular attention by finding itself part of the repertoire of The Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. One often cited source is Wallis Willis (known as “Uncle Wallace”), a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian Territory in what is now Choctaw County, in Oklahoma. According to the Library of Congress, in the mid nineteenth century, “Uncle Wallace” was rented out to a local school for Native American boys where he is said “to have entertained the boys by singing spirituals he composed, including ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.” The school’s headmaster was apparently so taken by this spiritual that he noted it down and shared it, along with several other spirituals, with the Jubilee Singers when he heard them at a concert in New Jersey.” Another, more dramatic, origin story is also told:
John W. Work claimed that the spiritual “burst forth” from the anguished soul of Sarah Hannah Sheppard, the mother of Ella Sheppard of Fisk Jubilee Singer fame. Sarah gave birth to Ella on a Tennessee plantation in 1851. When she learned that her master intended to sell her to another plantation, thus separating her permanently from Ella, she resolutely set out for the Cumberland River, intent on drowning both herself and her daughter. She was stopped by an “old mammy” who cautioned Sarah to “let de chariot of de Lord swing low.” Reaching toward heaven, the wise woman pulled down an imaginary scroll and prophesied that the young child would one day stand before kings and queens. Sarah yielded to the old woman’s counsel, turned back, and allowed herself to be sold and taken to Mississippi. Ella did indeed perform before royalty. She eventually reunited with her mother and brought her to live with her in Nashville.
Whatever the truth to its beginnings, the lyrics are thought to be referencing the Bible story of Prophet Elijah’s being taken to heaven by a chariot, and also possibly the “Underground Railroad”, the freedom movement that helped black people escape from Southern slavery to the North and Canada.
Featured here is the first known recording of the song performed in December 1909 for Victor Studios by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet (pictured above), a male foursome carrying on the legacy of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers of the 1870s.
The unaccompanied recording of the quartet showcased the talent of four Fiskites: John Wesley Work II (1st tenor), James Andrew Myers (2nd tenor), Alfred Garfield King (1st bass), and Noah Ryder (2nd bass). By the time of the 1909 recording session, Fisk University had earned a reputation as being the “music conservatory” for aspiring black artists, primarily due to the immense fame of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured in the interest of the university from 1871-1878.
The 1909 recording popularised the song hugely, helping it become one of the best known African American spirituals. Over the last century composers have arranged it for choral ensembles, concert soloists, jazz bands, concert bands, dance bands, and symphony orchestras, and it has been recorded countless times by popular musicians, from Paul Robeson to Johnny Cash, from Fats Waller to Eric Clapton. The song has also been adopted by England’s rugby fans who’ve sung its emotional strains at games for decades.