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Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: RFU to review English rugby anthem over links to slavery

Written by Sport, Sport Features

Swing Low Sweet Chariot may no longer ring out over the field of Twickenham, as the RFU review the singing of the song, in relation to recent protests.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot has become synonymous with English rugby – Twickenham uses the phrase ‘Carry Them Home’ as a marketing tool. The song has been covered many times due to its relationship with rugby, most recently by Ella Eyre in 2015. England player Mario Itoje has announced his support of the review.

“The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot song has long been part of the culture of rugby and is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or its sensitivities. We are reviewing its historical context, and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions”

RFU representative

I am a huge supporter of the BLM movement, and believe that many of their protests are highlighting crucial flaws in our attitude to the UK’s racist past. However, I believe that the review is simply based on incorrect assumptions. The song was written by a former slave in the American South, was a symbol of the resistance against the slave trade in the Deep South, and was associated with the Underground Railroad of runaway slaves. It was an important symbol of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, famously being performed at the infamous Woodstock festival in 1969, and is a staple song of Baptist and African American spiritual music in the South.

I can only find one example of the song being seriously criticised for its themes before. In 1939, the Nazi Party added the song to a list of “undesired and harmful” musical pieces.

Swing Low has been a staple of the English rugby team, equal to the song Jerusalem, since the 1980s, when black player Michael Offiah began to gain traction. However, they didn’t sing the song because Offiah was black, but because of his nickname; ‘Chariots’, a play on the film Chariots of Fire. It was also sung in jubilant celebration when Chris Oti scored a hat trick against Ireland in 1988, breaking a long slump, and cementing the songs perceived relationship with black players in the public consciousness. It also reflects, in some ways, the idea of the rugby player carrying the ball across the river of the opposing team’s line. It has been a staple song at rugby pitches since the 1960s.

What’s more, a review won’t accomplish anything. Even if Twickenham were to decide to stop using it in their marketing, England fans will continue to sing the song anyway. It’s like banning the Welsh from singing Delilah, or Bread of Heaven. The roots of the song may be shrouded in racism, but racism has never played a part in the songs use in rugby.

The song has also always been associated with those fighting against racism, from the 1860s, to the 1960s, to today.

I can’t see why it’s use in rugby is controversial. However, to ensure that sport remains a place where all people are accepted, it is important that we question aspects of our history, provided that we are in possession of all the facts.

Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons

Last modified: 18th June 2020

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