Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Swing Low Sweet Chariot" - how did a signature arrangement of the Fisk Jubilee Singers become an English rugby anthem? With notes on James Agee and Bascom Lamar Lunsford in southern Appalachia


[from background on Fisk Jubilee Singers] ... Cut to Douai Abbey, Upper Woolhampton, Reading, England; a seminary for English boys founded by Cardinal Allen in 1568 in France, relocated to England in 1903. Run by Benedictine Monks, the Abbey has its own school which, in turn, has a rugby team. 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' has long since been the song of the 1st-XV of the Douai rugby team. No one is now sure how this came to be, but it is not difficult to imagine how such a Gospel song, with its spiritual roots and connotations of 'escape and evasion' could prove to be a popular source of inspiration for young sportsmen in a Benedictine environment.

On 18th March 1988 a group of students from the Douai team attended the England V Ireland rugby match at Twickenham. They were bunched in front of the lower east stand. Whenever an England player was in with a chance of scoring the 'merry' band of students would pipe up with 'their' anthem. They delivered this with particular vigour when Nigerian-born wing Chris Oti ran in his first try for England. Inspired by the response and amusement of the spectators immediately around them the students struck up with added gusto as Chris Oti scored a second try. By the time the player, now on a roll, scored his try-hat trick the chorus reached such a crescendo that, seemingly, the whole of the England supporters joined in and an anthem was born.

In 1995 Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the English reggae group China Black collaborated on as the England rugby team anthem for the 1995 world cup in South Africa. ... heard here here in a mashup with play-by-play from a 2003 championship match ...

James Agee ... recollections that found their way into A Death in the Family -- reminiscences of his childhood, ca. the summer of 1915 in Knoxville, Tenn.

JAMES AGEE AND THE WOUNDED BODY by James Andrew Crank (A dissertation submitted to the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English), Chapel Hill (2007):

... Comparing his father’s and mother’s styles of singing, Rufus decides that his father is the more creative of the two. When they sing, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Rufus notes that his father “started four full notes above [his mother] , and slowed up a little, and sort of dreamed his way down among several extra notes she didn’t sing.” His mother, however, “sang the same thing clear and true in a sweet, calm voice, fewer and simpler notes” (91). Even within the different singing styles, Agee emphasizes the creativity and artifice of the masculine and the detachment and directness of the feminine. By making the connection, Agee also implicitly suggests that his father and mother’s singing styles are connected to his own narrative style in the book. Instead of privileging one style over another, Rufus likes it “best of all when they sang together and he was there with them, touching them on both sides….” The interplay of the two distinct styles eventually creates a harmony that comforts Rufus. (126)
Extended lyrical passage in A Death in the Family, [ed. David McDowell]. (New York: Bantam, 1957). 96-98.


"Swing Low" -- according to the thread Lyr Add: 'Chariot' Spirituals on Mudcat Café, the 1937 collection Religious Folk-Songs Of The Negro: As Sung At Hampton Institute by R. Nathaniel Dett (Editor) has a spiritual with quite similar words to Lunsford's.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, liner notes to Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina. Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40082. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1996.

6. Swing Low

"The title of this old spiritual is 'Swing Low.' I think it possibly is the foundation of the beautiful spiritual, 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' I learned this from a student of mine way back in years gone by. Then I took Dr. R.W. Gordon to his home in 1925 at York, South Carolina, and Dr. Gordon recorded it on a cylinder record. A beautiful song sung by Willard Randall, then a man of the family, about middle age, at York, South Carolina." (14 -- lyrics on 15)

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