Black History Month: The Story Behind “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

Hi, friends. Today, we’re checking out another beloved hymn written by an African-American as we celebrate Black History Month. This is a song that most people (in English-speaking countries) know, even if they aren’t Christians.

Uncle Wallace Willis

“Uncle” Wallace Willis, believed to have lived approximately 1820-1880, was a Choctaw freedman living in the Indian Territory. [Choctaw freedmen were slaves who were liberated and granted citizenship in the Choctaw Nation after the Civil War. Willis’s slaveholder before the war was a Choctaw.] The area where he lived is now known as Hugo, Oklahoma. He is credited with a few Negro spirituals: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” and some lesser known ones. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, the groundbreaking a cappella group from last week’s BHM post, were the first musicians to officially record “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in 1909. Some scholars say the songs attributed to Willis weren’t composed by him. I noticed in the hymnal at my church that the song is not credited to anyone.  According to multiple sources, however, a local reverend in the Choctaw Nation introduced Willis’s songs to the Fisk Jubilee Singers after seeing them perform. If Willis wasn’t real, it’s a mystery how the FJS obtained this song.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

E11219.jpg
“Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire” by Giuseppe Angeli

The lyrics reference the story in 2 Kings: 2-11 where the prophet Elijah gets swept up to heaven, ascending in a fiery chariot. The other man depicted in the painting above is the prophet Elisha. Historians have debated that spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water” contain covert messages about escape on the Underground Railroad, but the theories are impossible to verify. The song’s popularity resurged during the Civil Rights Movement. In 2011, Oklahoma declared “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” the official Oklahoma Gospel Song.

I include the Fisk Jubilee Singers recording below. It’s hard to listen to without feeling the back of your eyes stinging…

Lyrics:

(Chorus) Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

(Verses) I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Coming for to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I’m coming, too
Coming for to carry me home

I’m sometimes up and sometimes down
Coming for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Coming for to carry me home

The brightest day that I can say
Coming for to carry me home
When Jesus washed my sins away
Coming for to carry me home

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for similar posts this month.

6 comments

  1. Another great post, Lily! 👍💯

    My paternal grandfather was part Choctaw and the son of a freed slave. He passed away years before I was born and neither my dad or his siblings had any documentation… or interest… in the lineage. My older brother is researching our ancestry but keeps hitting brick walls due to bad record-keeping.

    Fun fact: he’s visited over a dozen cemeteries trying to connect the dots! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

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