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Swing Low Sweet Chariot - Chords, Lyrics and Origins

Origins

Swing Low Sweet Chariot was composed by Uncle Wallace Willis in the nineteenth century.  Wallace was a freedman - that is an emancipated slave - living in the Choctaw Indian Territory of the United States.  A minister at a local Choctaw boarding school heard Wallace singing the song, transcribed it and sent it to the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University of Nashville, Tennessee.  They in turn made it famous across the United States (the first recorded version, which dates from 1909, is by them).

The lyrics may refer to the Underground Railway, which was a network of safe houses used to ferry escaped slaves from the South to the North.  And Wallace may have also been inspired by the Red River, which in the song turns into the River Jordan.

The song enjoyed a fresh burst of popularity during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Joan Baez performed Swing Low at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.  For reasons that, as an Englishman, have never been very clear to me, it has also been adopted as the England rugby union team's unofficial anthem, and gets sung by the crowd, especially when the team are winning.  It also has a somewhat more general association with English sport.  For example, I went to see Joan Baez perform  in Cambridge, England in 1996 during the Euro 96 soccer tournament that was taking place in England.  That night, England were playing Germany in the semi-final - this was the biggest soccer match to be staged in the country for thirty years.  As a passionate England supporter, I desperately didn't want to know the result - I had my video recorder on at home, and intended to watch the match 'live' after the concert.  At the end of the concert, Joan Baez announced that there was a "penalty-shoot" (should have been "penalty shoot-out", but we'll forgive her that), and went on to sing 'Swing Low' unaccompanied.  It sounded very mournful, which made me think we'd lost.  This feeling was reinforced on the drive home as every face we passed looked downcast.  I actually had to wait until the early hours of the morning for the result, as my video recorder ran out of tape (after the first penalty, would you believe!), and this was before the days of twenty-four hour news! 

The youtube video show a performance of the song by Johnny Cash.  Personally I love Johnny Cash's reading of it (though maybe I'm just a fan of Johnny Cash's voice).  The youtube version starts in C, as in the chords section above.  At the beginning of the second verse it modulates to C sharp (so C sharp, F sharp and Ab replace C, F and G).  It modulates again, to D (D, G and A) at the next chorus, and again to Eb at the next verse (Eb, Ab, Bb).  The final choruses are sung in E (E, A and B).

Skip the first minute or so of the youtube video if you don't want to hear Johnny Cash's introductory blurb about the song.

Chords

  C

I looked over Jordan,

       F            C
And what did I see,

                               G7
Comin' for to carry me home,

   C                   F                C
A band of angels comin' after me,

                   G7        C
Comin' for to carry me home.

 

          C              F    C

Swing Low, sweet chariot,

                                G7

Comin' for to carry me home;

          C             F    C 

Swing low, sweet chariot,

C                 G7         C

Comin' for to carry me home.

Lyrics

Chorus
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home;
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan,
And what did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home,
A band of angels comin' after me,
Comin' for to carry me home.

Repeat Chorus

If you get there before I do,
Comin' for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends I'm comin' too,
Comin' for to carry me home.

Repeat Chorus

Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)

Repeat Chorus

Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home) 

Repeat Chorus

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)

Repeat Chorus

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