Title: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Artist: Ruth Starr Rose
Size: 13.5″ x 16″
Credit: Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Description: The main focus of the image is a chariot driven by an angel and a winged horse, guided by three angels surrounding it, that is swooping down towards the ground. On the ground, in the bottom right corner, are five people. Two are standing, looking up at the chariot, one with their hands together in prayer. Three people are kneeling, two with their heads bowed in prayer and the third with their arms stretched upwards, looking at the chariot. In the background, the sky is parting to let down rays of sun, and a church-like structure can be seen in the far background.
Possibly one of the most well-known spiritual songs in the United States is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. A staple of Jubilee Singers nationwide, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Students (sometimes called Hampton Singers) were among groups that toured around the United States, performing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and other African American spirituals at concert halls. The Fisk Jubilee Singers even performed in England in front of Queen Victoria, bringing this oral tradition to the United Kingdom.
The song tells of a chariot that is on its way to carry the singer “home,” to heaven. It is guided by a band of angels and the singer instructs the listener to let the singer’s friends in heaven know that they’re coming too if the listener dies before the singer.
The origin of the song has come under debate with Currie Ballard’s recent research suggesting that the song was composed by Wallace and Minerva, two enslaved African Americans owned by Brit Willis. Willis, who was half-Choctaw and was forced to relocate to Oklahoma, rented out Wallace to a nearby school for Native American boys once they arrived in Oklahoma. There, Wallace composed “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and taught it to the boys. The song was so moving it compelled the school’s headmaster, Alexander Reid, to write it down and present it to the Fisk Jubilee Singers to add to their repertoire.
Other sources claim Sarah Hannah Sheppard as the origins of the familiar song. Sarah was an enslaved woman who reportedly received a prophecy from an “old mammy” as she intended to drown herself and her child in the Cumberland River (which occupies parts of Kentucky and Tennessee). She had planned to do so in order to avoid being separated from her daughter, Ella Sheppard, when her master intended to sell her to another plantation. The woman told Sarah to “let de chariot of de Lord swing low” and prophesized that Sarah’s daughter, Ella, would stand in front of kings and queens one day; a prophecy that came true as Ella Sheppard was among the Fisk Jubilee Singers who sang before Queen Victoria.
Though the origins of the song are officially unknown, students at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) who toured around the nation at the same time as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, were applauded for their version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” An 1874 article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle touts that, out of the Hampton Students’ entire program, “decidedly the very best thing was the charming chorus ‘Swing low Sweet Chariot’.” An 1873 article in the Montreal Witness claimed the Hampton Students’ performance of the song “was finely rendered; such was the harmonious combination of the parts that one could scarcely believe that the sounds were produced by the human voice.”
Anderson, Toni P. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” The Fisk University Jubilee Quartet (1909). Library of Congress, 2002. PDF. https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/Swing%20Low%20article.pdf.[Newspaper advertisement for a “Grand Concert” by the Hampton Students in April 2, 1873 edition of the Elizabeth Daily Journal]. Elizabeth Public Library Archives, Elizabeth, New Jersey.[Newspaper clipping labeled “Montreal Witness, May 25, 1873”]. “Singing Up” Virginia Hall. Hampton University Archives, Hampton, Virginia.[Newspaper clipping labeled “Rochester, Democrat and Chronicle, March 31, 1874”]. “Singing Up” Virginia Hall. Hampton University Archives, Hampton, Virginia.
Tuskegee Institute Singers. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Internet Archive, 1919. https://archive.org/details/78_swing-low-sweet-chariot_tuskegee-institute-singers_gbia0000405a/Swing+Low%2C+Sweet+Chariot+-+Tuskegee+Institute+Singers-restored.flac.
Thanki, Juli. “141 Years Later, Fisk Jubilee Singers Return to England.” The Tennessean. May 21, 2015. https://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2015/05/21/years-later-fisk-jubilee-singers-return-england/27673883/.