Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Swing Low Sweet Chariot" -- notes on origin (and an 1881 visit to Springfield by the Jubilee Singers that we won't want to celebrate)

There are several differing accounts regarding the origins of this gospel song. Some sources say the origins of the spiritual tune lie in attempts of slaves escaping slavery and finding freedom by means of jumping into a wagon, train or ship to hide and ride away. African-Americans working in the cotton fields would sing this gospel song about a slave escaping by this means, the word "chariot" being used as a euphemism for the means of transport.

Other sources claim the song was written by a slave, Sara Sheppard, who having contemplated suicide as she and her baby Ella were to be sold off to different owners, recalled the words of an old black "momma." She had told Sara that she and her child would be carried to a far better place by God's chariot. Chariot was the French word for the sledge used to collect cotton in the plantation fields.

Yet more sources claim Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian Territory, composed this spiritual sometime before 1862. He was inspired by the Red River, which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the Prophet Elijah being taken to heaven by a chariot.

We do know for a fact that in 1871 Alexander Reid, a minister at a Choctaw boarding school attended a performance of The Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American a cappella ensemble, consisting of students at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He had heard Willis singing this song years earlier and had transcribed the words and melody. Reid thought this and other songs he had heard Willis singing were better than those he had heard and he sent the music to the Jubilee Singers. The group added it to their repertoire and popularized the song during a tour of the United States and Europe.

As a footnote, Ella Sheppard, was later re-united with her mother Sara, and became the first pianist of the Fisk University Choir.

References a cover by Clapton -- (w/ reggae beat): "A version by Eric Clapton was a track on his 1975 album, There's One in Every Crowd. Released as a single, it peaked at #19 in the UK."

Toni P. Anderson. 'Tell Them We Are Singing for Jesus': Original Fisk Jubilee Singers and Christian Reconstruction, 1871-1878. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2010. p 189 and 283n78.

Detailed account of story of Ella S's mother intending to drown her, "... but Mammy Viney had seen a different future. 'Don't you do it, Honey, don't take that that you cannot give back,' Mammy Viney counseled. She slowly lifted her eyes heavenward and counseled Sara to do the same. 'Look, honey, don't you see the clouds of the Lord as te pass by. The Lord has got need of this child'" (189). Endnote says, "The prophetic element of this story tends to place it in the category of family folklore. Nonetheless, Sheppard's retelling and inclusion of it in printed form indicates that she heard and received it as a factual part of her life history" (283n78). Quotes John Work, in Folk Songs of the American Negro, as saying "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "Before I'd Be a Slave" relate back to this incident.

Andrew Ward. Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 380-381.

In summer 1871 as students were sharing songs with eorge White. "Ella Sheppherd brought him 'Before I'd Be a Slave" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," songs her mother Sarah, had taught her and later claimed to have composed" (110). Cites Work (pp. 79-80) and Mary Spence, note, Jan. 12, 1940 [in Fisk archives].

1879 and 1881 - refused accommodation in Springfield hotels ... controversial, especially in the Chicago papers, and Gov. John M. Palmer objected and "Lincoln's brother-in-law, Clark Moulton Smith, declared the Jubilees' treatment 'a burning shame and a disgrace to the people'." (380) to their exclusion. Quotes owner of Leland Hotel on Capitol Street:

"Yes, sir, by God, I did refuse 'em," boasted [hotel keeper] Horace Leland to a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "I am not going, by God, to buy cheap beefsteaks for [a racial slur] and expect my guests and my friends to sit down by their sides and eat them too. No, sir, not by a God damned sight. ... They're all well enough in their place, but God damn me if I want to eat with them, or sleep with them, or have any of my relatives marry 'em, by God, sir." (381)
Note 34 refers to Chicago Tribune April 29, 1881. Inter-Ocean and unidentified paper in Fisk University archives also quoted. Smith owned several dry goods stores in Springfield and built what is now the Vachel Lindsay home on South Fifth Street. Lincoln drafted his first inaugural -- "Needing a quiet place to compose his first inaugural address, Lincoln used a desk on the third floor of the store to write the speech." (Carl and Roberta Volkmann, Springfield's Sculptures, Momuments and Plaques

No comments: