Six Nations: Why do England rugby fans sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot? Where does song come from, lyrics and hidden meaning

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Swing Low Sweet Chariot is sung by England rugby fans, but the song has a completely different meaning in the US

The England rugby team are in action today, taking on France in the final round of the Six Nations tournament tonight - with an outside chance of taking the title if the favourites Ireland slip up against Scotland.

The game will be played at Groupama Stadium in Lyon, France, with kick-off beginning at 8pm. England rugby fans are likely to sing their official rugby anthem, Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The song, which has been sung by fans for three decades, originated in the US as a spiritual anthem, invoking the horrors of slavery.

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The use of the song has been called into question. In 2020, the Rugby and Football Union (RFU) issued a statement after they began a review into the "historical context" of the song, confirming it would not be banned.

So, why do England rugby fans sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot? Here's everything you need to know about the song and its meaning.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot - why do England rugby fans sing it?

Swing Low Sweet Chariot has been sung at England rugby matches for nearly three decades. According to the BBC in 2020, archive footage has revealed the song being sung at Twickenham in 1987 when Martin "Chariots" Offiah played.

Offiah gained the nickname "Chariots" from the 1924 movie, Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of two athletes racing in the Olympics. The footage was discovered by World Rugby Museum curator, Phil McGowan, who believes the song was sung due to the word "chariot" which honoured Offiah's nickname.

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An English fan shouts encouragement during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 (Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images)An English fan shouts encouragement during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 (Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images)
An English fan shouts encouragement during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 (Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images) | Warren Little/Getty Images

McGowan said: "I played it through and there it was, it's unmistakable." He continued: "That solves the mystery of why on earth were they were singing this song. The association with Martin Offiah suggests it was a play on words. His name was already making waves, so a lot of people would have turned out to the Middlesex Sevens just to see him play."

Swing Low Sweet Chariot lyrics

Here are the lyrics for 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

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

If you get there before I do

Coming for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I'm coming too

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Where did Swing Low, Sweet Chariot come from?

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a cherished spiritual song that originates from America. Composed by Wallace Willis, a former enslaved African American before the American Civil War, it invoked the horrors of slavery.

The song became a symbol of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s, at a time when Black people across the US fought for equality and an end to legalised racial segregation.

Is singing the song at a rugby match controversial?

Swing Low Sweet Chariot has deep roots in the American anti-slavery and civil rights movement, for many it is a cherished spiritual song that invokes the horrors of slavery, so its use on a rugby pitch in England can be viewed as controversial.

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In 2017, Arthur Jones, a music history professor and founder of the Spiritual Project at the University of Denver, told the New York Times that his first reaction was "absolute shock" and that the use of the song made him "feel kind of sad".

He explained: “My first reaction is absolute shock — and I actually understand it when I think about it — but that’s my first reaction.

“I feel kind of sad. I feel like the story of American chattel slavery and this incredible cultural tradition, built up within a community of people who were victims and often seen as incapable of standing up for themselves, is such a powerful story that I want the whole world to know about it. But apparently not everyone does.”

Is Swing Low Sweet Chariot banned?

The song has not been banned from being sung at rugby matches. In 2020 the Rugby Football Union (RFU) issued a statement after they began a review into the "historical context" of the song.

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Reported by Sky Sports, their statement reads: "The RFU has stated it will not ban Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as it has a long-held place in rugby history however, the Union will use its social media and event audiences to proactively educate fans on the history and provenance of the song as well as providing platforms for diverse voices across the game."

The governing body continued: "The RFU has conducted research with over 4,400 people from the rugby community to understand attitudes and opinions to D&I in rugby and it has undertaken a detailed analysis of sport participation from Sport England Active Lives and YouGov data.

"Research on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot concluded that 74 per cent of people, rising to 84 per cent of those from a BAME background agreeing that it is important for England Rugby to actively educate fans on the origins of Swing Low while 69 per cent of respondents said the song should not be banned."

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