Swing Low Sweet Chariot goes back a long way. You’ll hear conflicting information on when it was written, but the source that seems the most specific to me credits it to a Choctaw freedman named Wallis Willis, who wrote it sometime previous to1862. The first recording was by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909. If you want to understand the song, here’s a well-researched page exploring several possible layers of meanings and intents. I’ve always associated it with 2 Kings 2:11, the reference to the prophet Elijah being taken to heaven in a chariot.
I have a special love for gospel music, and Swing Low is one of my most favorites. The music speaks to me. Though often used for funerals, it doesn’t have to be sad. Or slow. When playing it, I usually opt for either a ‘playful’ touch, inspired by a version done by Floyd Cramer… or a faster version inspired by Denny Correll. I had the great pleasure of attending one of Denny’s concerts. That man’s fingers could FLY. At the time he came to our church, he was billed as the third fastest guitarist alive. Not sure how you’d go about proving that, but after watching him play, I was willing to believe it.
The version here blends some of both styles, but I made an effort to not get too carried away. Denny showed that you don’t have to put a speed limit on gospel music, and just about any song can be played to fit just about any need. You might think of “Swing Low” as a slow, mournful song. To me, it’s joyful. I can literally get lost in the song and just play it over and over without tiring of it. Ask Monique… sometimes I get a song stuck in my head, and that’s all I want to play for days at a time.
There’s no risk that I’ll up and move to Oklahoma, but they did get at least one thing right. In May of 2011, Swing Low was signed into law as being the official Oklahoma State Gospel Song. I didn’t even know states HAD official gospel songs, but it’s good to know. Seems like the pendulum has begun to swing against Christianity in recent times, it’s nice to know there’s still some respect and faith.
I’m not going to argue issues of faith with anybody. You believe what you like. I’ll do the same, and we should all get along in peace. (I know, that’s a bit naive, but I can still dream it.)