"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is a historic American Negro spiritual. The earliest known recording was in 1909, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University.
Fisk University Jubilee Quartet
Noah Walker Ryder , Alfred Garfield King
John Wesley Work II , J. A. Myers
Label Number: Victor 16453
Matrix Number/Take Number: B-8420/3
Recording Date: December 1st, 1909
Place of Recording: Camden, New Jersey
The Fisk University Jubilee Qt also recorded "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" on December 27, 1911 on Edison Cylinder BA 5216.
"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was written by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian Territory in what is now Choctaw County, near the County seat of Hugo, Oklahoma sometime before 1862. He was inspired by the Red River, which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the Prophet Elijah's being taken to heaven by a chariot (2 Kings 2:11). Many sources claim that this song and "Steal Away" (also composed by Willis) had lyrics that referred to the Underground Railroad, the resistance movement that helped slaves escape from the South to the North and Canada. Alexander Reid, a minister at the Old Spencer Academy, Choctaw boarding school, heard Willis singing these two songs and transcribed the words and melodies. He sent the music to the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was published in the Fisk Jubilee's Songbook (1873)
The Jubilee Singers popularized the songs during a tour of the United States and Europe.
There may be an older version by the Standard Quartette on cylinder from circa 1895:
Also see this Columbia 1894 brown-wax cylinder announcement, from Bill Bryant’s papers.
This version was found in a trash of cylinders and was released in September 2016.
Another early version
Apollo Jubilee Quartette
Label: Columbia A-1169
Matrix 19778=2 - (IS=8/12)
Recorded February 26, 1912
Columbia matrix 19773. Swing low, sweet chariot / Apollo Quartette - Discography of American Historical Recordings
And here's another early version:
Tuskegee Institute Singers
Label: Victor 17890
Matrix/Take: B-16512 / 3
Recorded February 14, 1916
And another cover from the same year:
Label: Victor 45086
Recorded March 09, 1916
Harry Thacker Burleigh's arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was originally published for solo voice in 1917 following the success of Deep River.
Burleigh 's setting was published in 1920 for mixed chorus by G. Ricordi
& Co., New York.
Antonín Dvořák, Burleigh's professor at the
National Conservatory of Music, used the tune of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in his Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."
Burleigh had learned many of the old plantation songs from the singing of his blind maternal grandfather, Hamilton Waters, who in 1832 bought his freedom from slavery on a Maryland plantation. Waters became the town crier and lamplighter for Erie, Pennsylvania, and as a young boy Burleigh helped guide him along his route. The family was Episcopalian and young Harry sang in the men and boys choir. Burleigh also "remembered his Mother's singing after chores and how he and his [step] father and grandfather all harmonized while helping her." At various times in his long life — he died in 1949 at age 81 — Burleigh described his student days with Dvorak. Taken together, Burleigh's writings provide insight into Dvorak's ongoing Negro music education while he was composing what would become the Symphony "From the New World": "Dvorak used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper ... I gave him what I knew of Negro songs – no one called them spirituals then – and he wrote some of my tunes (my people's music) into the New World Symphony."
Dvorak began working on various "American" themes in mid-December 1892, filling eleven pages of a sketchbook. Burleigh wrote: "Part of this old 'spiritual' ['Swing Low Sweet Chariot'] will be found in the second theme of the first movement ... given out by the flute. Dvorak saturated himself with the spirit of these old tunes and then invented his own themes. There is a subsidiary theme in G minor in the first movement with a flatted seventh [a characteristic passed on to jazz, known as a "blue note"] and I feel sure the composer caught this peculiarity of most of the slave songs from some that I sang to him; for he used to stop me and ask if that was the way the slaves sang."
Mabel Garrison 1921 on Victrola 64969
Listen here BELOW:
The Southern Four 1921 Edison Diamond disc
Listen here BELOW:
C Carroll Clark (1921) on Black Swan 2024
Morehouse College Quartet (1923) on Okeh 4887
Associated Glee Clubs of America (1926) Victor 35770
Paul Robeson 1926
Label: Victor 20068B
Recorded January 07, 1926
Listen to Paul Robeson in the next YT:
Dame Nellie Melba (1926) on HMV DB 989
Recorded Small Queens Hall, London, 17
December 1926, piano
This is Melba’s very last recording
Kanawha Singers (1928) on Brunswick 3801
Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra (1937) on Decca 1396
Bing Crosby (1938) on Decca 25052
Charioteers (1939) on Brunswick 8468
Glenn Miller (1946) on RCA Victor 20-1834
The Jordanaires 1950 on Decca
Blackwood Brothers Qt (1950) on Blackwood Bros rec.
Blackwood Brothers Qt (1952) on RCA 20-4793
Christine Clark (1956) on Savoy 4075A
Laurel Aitken (1960) on the Blue Beat label:
The song enjoyed a resurgence during the 1960s Civil Rights struggle and the folk revival; it was performed by a number of artists. Joan Baez had sung the song in 1968 it at the Newport Folk Festival. But perhaps her most famous performance during this period was at the legendary 1969 Woodstock festival.
The most well-known version is by Eric Clapton in 1975, possibly influenced by Laurel Aitken's version
Official England Rugby World Cup 2003 song
"Swing LOW Sweet Chariot" is NOT to be confused with "Swing DOWN Sweet Chariot" as recorded by Elvis Presley in 1960, which has a different melody and different lyrics too.
Elvis's "Swing Down Sweet Chariot" might have been originally recorded by The Golden Gate Quartet, who recorded "Swing Down Chariot" in June 1946, which however starts with "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", as recorded originally by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
In 1961 The Staple Singers recorded an album for the Vee Jay-label, which contained the both Chariot-versions: The uptempo "Swing Down Chariot" and the slow "Swing Slow Sweet Chariot".
Beyonce also sang the Golden Gate Quartet variation in the 2003 movie "Fighting Temptations"