Horace Clarence Boyer, Musicologist, on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Whats in the songs? Lets start with "Swing Low".
Boyer : "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is kind of misleading, because it has a beautiful melody. Its in what we call the major mode, and it has some wonderful words. But its kind of a sad song because its a song about death. Ive 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 theyre going to heaven. Theyre going to die. And it is the belief that "When I get to heaven, going to sing and shout. Therell 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 isnt 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.