New York Times offers faith-free take on rugby fans hijacking 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'

Let me start by confessing that I know very little about rugby or the fan culture that surrounds it in some parts of the world. In other words, I am an American.

However, I do know a thing or two about church music. Basically, I have been singing in church choirs (and academic choirs dedicated to classical and sacred music) so long that I don't even remember when I started. My childhood memories have always included choirs.

Thus, allow me to make a few comments on half of the material found in a fascinating New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "How a Slave Spiritual Became English Rugby’s Anthem." The story is labeled "rugby," which implies that it was a sports feature. However, it was also featured in the "international" news section of the Times online round-up.

Obviously, I want to comment on the feature's religious content and lack thereof. Here is the overture:

LONDON -- Barely a minute had elapsed in the match between the national rugby teams of England and France when the song first boomed around the stands at Twickenham Stadium.
“Swing low, sweet chariot,” thousands of fans sang, “coming for to carry me home.”
It is a famous refrain and melody. For many in the United States, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” enjoys a hallowed status as one of the cherished of 19th-century African-American spirituals, its forlorn lyrics invoking the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race.
But here, across the Atlantic, the song has developed a parallel existence, unchanged in form but utterly different in function, as a boisterous drinking song turned sports anthem.

The feature includes quite a bit of material about rugby culture. It also does a fantastic job of describing the symbolic role that this spiritual -- it could also be called a folk hymn -- has played in African-American history.

So what is missing? Suffice it to say that, when writing about the meaning of a song, I think that it helps to know what the lyrics of the song actually say. In this case, quoting the language used in this spiritual -- by which I mean quoting more than the opening line or two -- would clarify a crucial fact in the story. For journalists, clarity is a virtue.

You see, it appears that English rugby fans are not singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." They are singing the melody of this famous spiritual, while repeating the opening refrain over and over. In some cases, fans have added sports-related (or even bawdy) lyrics, and hand gestures, into the mix.

Does this matter? Only if, (a) readers need to know what is actually happening in those stadiums (and pubs) and if (b) readers need to understand why some African-American musicians and Christians are offended by what is going on.

Yes, many people are offended by what is clearly a strange case of cultural appropriation. This is when an important symbol or tradition is yanked out of one culture and slammed into another, often with offensive results.

The Times team is all over that angle. Let me stress that it's important to discuss the racial and cultural issues linked to this strange use of snippets of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Here is a crucial passage on that:

Over the years, English newspaper articles mentioning the chant’s genesis ... matter-of-factly tied its emergence to the race of Chris Oti, who was the first black player to represent England’s rugby team in almost a century, and who played a starring role in that game.
Dudley Wood, the former secretary of the Rugby Football Union, was quoted in The Independent in 1991 as saying that Oti “was totally mobbed on the way to the dressing room. It’s a delicate situation in a way, in that it’s a Negro spiritual. But we poor English don’t really have the songs to sing.”
Two years later, the same newspaper devoted an edition of its mail-in reader question-and-answer column to the question of why the chant took hold. In response, one reader wrote, “It was often sung by a white crowd when black players were playing well -- a backhanded compliment in my view.” Another called it “slightly racist but in the best possible taste.”

Disturbing, to say the least. But what about the actual Christian content of the hymn? As often happens when journalists write about music in the black church, it appears that everything is cultural and that's that. The faith component is ditched and the church is turned into a cultural museum.

So what are the lyrics of this spiritual? Click here for a full set (although there are variations elsewhere). Here are some important excerpts:

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

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

Many readers would be familiar with this much of the song. It appears that, in rugby stadiums, fans are repeating the first two lines and that's that. Perhaps readers can enlighten me on this point.

But there's more to the hymn than this, such as:

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

You get the idea. This spiritual had obvious implications for the slaves and former slaves who sang it, yearning for freedom and release from their pain and suffering. It has always been interpreted as an expression of yearning for a new home -- in this life and the next. That yearning had political and cultural content, as well as spiritual.

A 2015 BBC feature gets into some of that history, while -- again -- stripping away references to Christian faith in the song.

There are several theories about its meaning, including that it conveyed a coded message to slaves, instructing them to escape. However Horace Clarence Boyer, a prominent scholar in African-American music, believed the song is about death.
Professor Boyer, who died in 2009, told a BBC documentary: "This fits into that group of spirituals that say 'I would rather die than be here. Lord, just come and take me right now.'
"Instead they sing this, 'Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.' Where's home? That's heaven. Or at least not here. That's so interesting because everybody sings that, they say 'Oh that's such a pretty melody' not knowing that was a song about death.
"It's a sad song. It's almost like a language of double entendres. It has one meaning for you and another meaning for somebody else."

Let me return to my original question: Did the Times need to quote the lyrics? As I said, it would help for readers to know what rugby fans are singing and what they are not singing. The story basically assumes that this song is a cultural artifact, with zero content.

It is also crucial, when referring to bawdy pub versions "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," to know that fans are twisting the images of a sacred song into something radically different. And then there is the dancing in the stands, football anthem version.

This is a really interesting and at times poignant story. Please read it all.

The Times team clearly took this story seriously -- or parts of this story.

But why strip this famous black spiritual of its actual Christian content? In a way, the Times team put this hymn through an editing process that was not unlike the one being used in rugby stadiums. Why do that?

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