The Deep Meaning Behind Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Sunday November 5 2023, 8:15 PM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
The Deep Meaning Behind Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Swing Low Sweet Chariot Meaning

I've always been drawn to this intensely bittersweet negro spiritual since I first learned it in middle school.

Its timeless melody carries the weight of generations, echoing the resilience of those who longed for freedom in the face of oppression, and it hit me hard as a kid. 

It may seem dark because it is; the lyrics are sung from the viewpoint of a slave who is seeking freedom in the sweet release of death, similar to another one of my favorites, "Steal Away". 

Its enduring popularity lies in its ability to evoke empathy and inspire, making it a timeless anthem of hope and resilience.

But how can a song with such bleak lyrics be a symbol of hope? Let's dive into the lyrical content, the songwriters, and how the timeless staple in our culture has touched people over the last few centuries. 

The Story Behind The Composer

In an era where countless African American talents were overlooked and their names lost to history, the renowned composer behind the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is surprisingly known as Wallace Willis.

Willis, a Choctaw freedman belonging to a small community of emancipated individuals granted citizenship in the Choctaw Nation near Oklahoma, authored several notable works, including "Steal Away" and "The Angels Are Coming."

Legend has it that in the early 1870s, Reverend Alexander Reid chanced upon Willis' compositions.


Captivated by the melodies, Reid introduced Willis' music to the well-known Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group established in 1871. This encounter marked a historic turning point in the spiritual's legacy.

However, amidst this heartwarming tale, controversies surfaced. Claims arose suggesting that Willis received credit for spirituals penned by obscure composers lost to time.

The ambiguity surrounding Willis' work highlights the pervasive injustices faced by people of color in the late 1800s, shedding light on a troubling chapter in history.

The song gained widespread popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, becoming a well-known spiritual within African-American communities and later among folk and gospel musicians.

Related Post: The Meanings Behind Wade In The Water

Messages Within The Song

The lyrics of the song are metaphorical, depicting a longing for freedom and deliverance from the hardships of slavery. The "chariot" symbolizes the vehicle of salvation, and the singer expresses a desire to be carried away to freedom.

While specific evidence is scarce, the use of spirituals with hidden meanings was a well-documented practice during the time of the Underground Railroad.

This makes it plausible that songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" played a role in the quest for freedom and the abolitionist movement.

In the context of the Underground Railroad, where escaped slaves used a network of secret routes and safe houses to reach freedom in the North or Canada, spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" could have served as both inspiration and communication.

The lyrics could have been a way for abolitionists and conductors (those who helped escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad) to convey messages about planned escape routes or safe houses.

Lyrical Breakdowns

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

The singer is expressing a longing for freedom and escape from the hardships of slavery. The "chariot" symbolizes a vehicle of salvation, possibly representing death or a heavenly means of transportation that will carry the singer to a better place.

The imagery of something moving low in the sky suggests a discrete approach, perhaps indicating that the means of escape, whether it be the Underground Railroad or another method, will happen quietly and covertly.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, coming for to carry me home

In biblical imagery, the Jordan River symbolizes a boundary or obstacle. Looking over Jordan signifies that the singer is contemplating crossing a significant barrier. The chariot's arrival signals an opportunity for escape and deliverance.

A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home

The presence of angels reinforces the idea of a divine rescue. In the context of slavery, this imagery conveys hope and the belief that a higher power is watching over the oppressed, ready to guide them to freedom.

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

Overall, the lyrics of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" convey a deep yearning for freedom, spiritual deliverance, and the desire to escape the shackles of slavery that has a bit of positivity to it despite its grim topic.

The song served as a source of inspiration and hope for many enslaved individuals, reflecting their resilience and determination to seek something better.

Related Post: 30 Powerful Bible Verses About Music And Singing

Notable Performances Of Swing Low Sweet Chariot

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has been recorded by numerous artists in various genres over the years, including gospel, blues, and folk. Its enduring appeal has made it a classic American spiritual.

The song's lyrics have inspired discussions and interpretations related to the African-American experience, freedom, and hope. Its cultural impact extends beyond music, making it a symbol of resilience and aspiration.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, a renowned African American a cappella ensemble, played a significant role in popularizing spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The Fisk Jubilee Singers were formed in 1871 at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Eric Clapton, the renowned British rock guitarist and singer, released his rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in 1975 on his album "There's One in Every Crowd."

Clapton's version showcases his blues-infused guitar style and soulful vocals, adding a unique touch to the traditional spiritual.

Louis Armstrong, the iconic jazz trumpeter and vocalist, recorded "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in 1933. His rendition, infused with his distinctive gravelly voice and expressive trumpet playing, brings a sense of joy and reverence to the spiritual.

Its inspiration even made it to the world of sports, oddly enough, where England's national rugby union team adopted "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" as their anthem.

Its use as a sports chant started in the 1980s, and it has become a traditional song sung by rugby fans during matches.

Related Post: 15 Church Instruments To Consider For A Deep Musical Experience

Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 300 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, and features, Yona spends her time creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Check out Yona’s latest releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share if you like it!

If you are in need of singer, songwriter or song producer services, see what Yona Marie can offer you on her services page.

Check Out My Latest Single Release Below:

You May Also Like