Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Posted on September 16, 2018


Not too long ago I started to learn this great old Negro slave spiritual in my piano lessons. As I read the notes, and (very) slowly to combine the top hand with the bottom hand (treble clef with bass clef as I also slowly learn the language of the piano), and as I worked on the music, I read, and reread the lyrics.

I was attracted to the hymn by the tune—which I knew from having heard it for years—which then gave me an idea of what it should sound like. I know you experienced piano planners will probably smirk, but for us at the beginning and early intermediate state of the process, it helps to know what it should sound like.

And then I reread the wonderful lyrics of being glory bound to heaven and started to relate to this wonderful hymn on another level, united by a spiritual bond that transcended the music, but was inspired by the music. Go figure.

The words and themes were inspired by the prophet Elijah and a promise he made to his disciple, also a prophet, Elisha. in 2 Kings 2:6-14. As Elijah prepared for his death which came near the River Jordan, Elijah asked Elisha what “I may do for you, before I am taken from you?” Elisha, loving friend and disciple, had stayed with Elijah when Elijah was sent to the Jordon by the Lord.

“As the Lord lives, and as yourself live, I will not leave you.”

There is a sweetness and goodness in the act of loyalty. You may wish to read the story of Ruth and Naomi in the book of Ruth in the Old Testament for the expression of a similar love and faithfulness between Ruth and Naomi that marked Elisha’s last few days with Elijah.

Elisha answered, Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

I find this request somewhat remarkable given the material culture we inhabit. “Leave me your house, your motorcycle, your jewels, your etc.” might be more appropriate to our world, but Elisha asked for something spiritual.

Recall that the Lord appeared to the young king Solomon in a dream and asked Solomon, “ask for whatever you want me to give you.” 1 Kings 3:5 And Solomon asked for wisdom: “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” Would that those who govern us be as humble and discerning as Solomon. But, I digress.

Elijah told Elisha what he asked might be hard to do, but if Elisha saw Elijah being taken up, his wish would be granted. Then the ‘sweet chariot’ of the hymn carried Elijah away. “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”

The spiritual was probably composed in the 1860s by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman in the Indian territory of Oklahoma. The song and melody were later transcribed and a copy given to the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville who made a tour of Europe and the United States in the early twentieth century and brought “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” into American hearts and spirits. It has since been popularized by such celebrated musicians and singers like Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Benny Goodman, Johnny Cash, and Joan Baez, who wooed the hippy crowds at Woodstock with her rendition in 1969.

As a site devoted to the site wrote “anyone who longs for salvation hopes for heaven and believes there is something better waiting for us on the other side, can sing this song with joy.”[1] Indeed.

It is about salvation on the other side of slavery, which was particularly filled with despair and unhappiness on the plantations of North America, largely in the South and largely devoted to cotton. But the Christian message was that a sweet chariot would swing low to earth, pick you up, and rise away to life of freedom and deliverance with Lord Jesus in heaven. If life on earth was hell, life after would be paradise for those with faith in Jesus, their deliverer from sin and with his gift of salvation

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

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

[1] http://christumc-charlotte.org

/walking-thru-the-bible/swing-low-sweet-chariot/Published as “Old spiritual still inspires the hope of salvation,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, July 8 2018.