"Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and how it became a rugby anthem.
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The origins of this song lie in the Underground Railroad. For the many African Americans who lived in the Slave States prior to and during the American Civil War, the Underground Railroad provided them the opportunity and assistance for escaping slavery and finding freedom. Perhaps as many as one hundred thousand enslaved persons may have escaped in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War.
The Underground Railroad was neither 'under ground' nor a 'railroad', but was a loose network of aid and assistance (often from Quakers who opposed slavery) to enable the enslaved to escape from bondage. It involved paths through the woods and fields, river crossings, boats and ships, trains and wagons. In a bid for freedom the 'fugitives' frequently waded in water, so that dogs could not smell their tracks. Another technique involved jumping into a chariot (wagon, train or ship) to hide and ride away. Gradually, 'chariot' became a euphemism for a means of escape and evasion. 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' is an African-American gospel song about a slave escaping from the cotton trade using the Underground Railroad. The song was arranged by American Henry Thacker Burleigh from a spiritual song his slave grandfather taught him in 1866.
How did it come to be associated with English Rugby? Is it just a typical 'rugby song' much loved by players / fans on alcohol-fuelled coach journeys or post-match celebrations? Well, the answer is, in part, "yes." There is a version (complete with hand gestures) which dates back for several decades. But this does not explain 'Swing Low's new found status as an anthem.
Cut to Douai Abbey, Upper Woolhampton, Reading, England; a seminary for English boys founded by Cardinal Allen in 1568 in France, relocated to England in 1903. Run by Benedictine Monks, the Abbey has its own school which, in turn, has a rugby team. 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' has long since been the song of the 1st-XV of the Douai rugby team. No one is now sure how this came to be, but it is not difficult to imagine how such a Gospel song, with its spiritual roots and connotations of 'escape and evasion' could prove to be a popular source of inspiration for young sportsmen in a Benedictine environment.
On 18th March 1988 a group of students from the Douai team attended the England V Ireland rugby match at Twickenham. They were bunched in front of the lower east stand. Whenever an England player was in with a chance of scoring the 'merry' band of students would pipe up with 'their' anthem. They delivered this with particular vigour when Nigerian-born wing Chris Oti ran in his first try for England. Inspired by the response and amusement of the spectators immediately around them the students struck up with added gusto as Chris Oti scored a second try. By the time the player, now on a roll, scored his try-hat trick the chorus reached such a crescendo that, seemingly, the whole of the England supporters joined in and an anthem was born.
In 1991 legendary producer Charlie Skarbeck was invited to put together a musical project to commemorate the Rugby Union World Cup which was taking place in Britain, Ireland and France that year. The project spawned two notable hit singles. One was a track called 'World In Union' which put new words to Holst's Jupiter (better known as the patriotic hymn I Vow To Thee My Country); it made no. 13 in the chart for Kiri Te Kanawa. The other was 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot.' It was performed by the players themselves at the Abbey Road Studios; it made no. 16 in the chart.
Since then the tracks have been inextricably linked with the world cup tournament and every competition since has seen the release of new versions. In 1995 Ladysmith Black Mambazo recorded both, hitting no. 47 with 'World In Union' and Number 15 with 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot.' In 1999 Russell Watson took the latter to no. 38. In 2003, the year in which England won the World Cup in/against Australia, British reggae group UB40 took the song to no. 15 in the chart.
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