Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

There’s different opinions about who wrote this beautiful spiritual. Some say the author is unknown. They hold it is connected to the underground railroad and Harriet Tubman used it as a code for directing escaping slaves to a safe harbor.

I agree with those who say it was written by Wallis Willis. He was a Choctaw freedman who was inspired by the Red River that reminded him of the Jordan and Elijah, Kings 2:11, being carried to heaven by a chariot.  The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville came to sing the song by way of Alexander Reid who heard Willis singing it at the Old Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding school in Oklahoma. He transcribed the song and sent it to the singers. They made it popular on a tour of the United States and Europe. It’s not unrealistic to think one used the song in the underground railroad without ever knowing that Willis was the author.

I found this article from USA Today:

“Currie Ballard says he was browsing through a bookstore around Christmas when he found Via Oklahoma: And Still the Music Flows by the late Mabel Alexander. Inside, he was startled to find a story identical to one his mother and grandmother had told him when he was a child.

Wallace and Minerva Willis, Ballard’s ancestors, thought up the words and music of Sweet Chariot in the mid-1800s while working at a school for Native American boys in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. The song so moved the headmaster that he sent it to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nashville.”

 This is a song that I sang to my grandbabies. It comforted them when they were fussy; I sang it as we were swinging or rocking.

 

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