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Horace Clarence Boyer, Musicologist, on
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Horace Clarence Boyer What’s in the songs? Let’s start with "Swing Low".

Boyer : "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is kind of misleading, because it has a beautiful melody. It’s in what we call the major mode, and it has some wonderful words. But it’s kind of a sad song because it’s a song about death. I’ve often been fascinated by the fact that we were slaves singing about a chariot. And we all know that a chariot was reserved for nobility and the military. Why would slaves want to be in a chariot? Well, they wanted to be in a chariot because they’re going to heaven. They’re going to die. And it is the belief that "When I get to heaven, going to sing and shout. There’ll be nobody there to put me out." They will be like everybody else, so that they can ride in a chariot, "coming for to carry me home," which suggests that perhaps the smiling, shuffling, happy slave that we know so much about isn’t really all that happy, because they say, "Come and take me home," as if this world is not my home. And the wonderful reference to Jordan, of course, is a reference to death, because Jordan in the spiritual is death.

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