Thursday, 9 March 2017

Swinging Low?

Criticism from African-American scholars, as featured in the New York Times this week, that England rugby supporters are singing a slave song without fully understanding its historical context is, I'd venture, a tad over-precious. 

I'm referring of course to Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot,  the spiritual song thought to have been written by an African-American slave in the mid-1800s which calls for release from the suffering of slavery. 

It is, on the face of it, perhaps a strange song for England rugby fans to sing. 

Swing Low has, however, been been a regular feature of rugby's clubhouse choral repertoire for as long as I can remember - although admittedly when I first belted it out, along with accompanying hand gestures, I'm sure that neither I nor anyone else had any idea as to its origins. 

As for its associations with England, I first recall Swing Low being sung en masse at Twickenham in 1988 as England's Chris Oti scored a second-half hat trick of tries against the Irish. The fact that Oti was a black player has led some (including the New York Times) to suggest that there might have been some (albeit benign) racist motivation amongst those singing, but my recollection is that it was very much a spontaneous expression of joy and amazement at England scoring an almost unprecedented 6 tries at Twickenham.

I also don't remember subsequently hearing Swing Low sung much at Twickenham until the song was officially adopted and commercialised as an official anthem by the RFU for the 1991 World Cup, since when of course it has been sung regularly, perhaps too regularly, by England rugby fans worldwide.

So whilst it is important to understand the origins of the song, it is also important to understand the context in which the song is sung and its connection with the sport as an expression of celebration and support.

What I would say, however, is that:

- the song is sung way too often and has (in my humble opinion) really become a bit of a dirge;

- those fans that sing Swing Low the most often appear only to know one verse; and

- for the RFU to have turned a profit from the commercial exploitation of a song about the suffering of African-American slaves is, at best, somewhat distasteful.


PACSFerret said...

Could be worse.. If efforts from some MPs to have Jerusalem in place as an English national anthem - even one verse would be a stretch.

TotalFlanker said...

I'm not against having a proper English national anthem - frankly anything would be an improvement on God Save the Queen.

Von said...

My understanding of the Chris Oti story and adoption of Swing Low by England fans was that he also was part of a gospel choir - or at least a load of school friends were - and it was a group of his buddies in the crowd that started the singing initially. That story has it that with each try, more and more people around the core group started to join in. Once they got to the sixth performance, well it was established.

This may be apocryphal, but it's the version I've been going with for years, because it's the best way I can find to rationalise/defend its use.

Aside from that, I had to admire the Welsh one year (can't remember when but Wales won), for the improvised rendition of You Can Stick Your F***ing Chariot Up Your Arse, (to the tune of she'll be coming round the mountain).