An article this week in the New York Times is somewhat critical of the appropriation of Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot as the anthem of England rugby.
The spiritual song is thought to have been written by an African-American slave in the mid-1800s and calls for release from the suffering of slavery. On the face of it, it is perhaps a strange song for England rugby fans to sing.
The song has, however, been been a regular feature of rugby's clubhouse choral repertoire for as long as I can remember – although admittedly when I first belted it out, along with accompanying hand gestures, I'm sure that neither I nor anyone else had any idea as to its origins.
I first recall Swing Low being sung en masse at Twickenham in 1988 as England's Chris Oti scored a second-half hat trick of tries against the Irish. The fact that Oti was a black player has led some (including the New York Times) to suggest that there might have been some (albeit benign) racist motivation amongst the singers, but my recollection is that it was very much a spontaneous expression of joy and amazement at England scoring an almost unprecedented 6 tries at Twickenham.
I also don't remember subsequently hearing Swing Low sung much at Twickenham until the song was officially adopted and commercialised as an official anthem by the RFU for the 1991 World Cup, since when of course it has been sung regularly, perhaps too regularly, by England rugby fans worldwide.
Criticism from African-American scholars that England rugby supporters are singing a slave song without understanding its historical context is, I'd venture, a tad over-precious.
What I would say, however, is that:
- the song is sung way too often and has (in my humble opinion) really become a bit of a dirge;
- those fans that sing Swing Low the most often appear only to know one verse; and
- for the RFU to have turned a profit from the commercial exploitation of a song about the suffering of African-American slaves is, at best, somewhat distasteful.