In Depth

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: England rugby accused of stealing slave anthem

The adoption of an African-American spiritual by English rugby fans is 'unfortunate' say US academics

rugby

Few English rugby fans will be aware they might be causing offence when Twickenham reverberates to the strains of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot on Saturday. But fans have been accused of cultural appropriation for adopting an "African-American spiritual about the horrors of slavery" as their anthem, reports the Daily Telegraph.

The song has long been popular at English rugby grounds and has been sung at HQ for decades but a report in the New York Times this week highlighted concerns about its use.

The song has "a hallowed status as one of the cherished 19th-century African-American spirituals, its forlorn lyrics invoking the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race", says the paper. But it notes that on this side of the Atlantic "the song has developed a parallel existence, unchanged in form but utterly different in function, as a boisterous drinking song turned sports anthem".

Not everyone believes this is appropriate. "In the United States, where rugby barely registers in the popular consciousness, learning about the song's separate life abroad can result in a combination of surprise, disappointment and fascination," says the NYT.

"Such cross-cultural appropriations of US slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave," says Josephine Wright, a professor of music and black studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. She says it's "unfortunate" that England fans have chosen to sing Swing Low.

Another academic, Arthur Jones, a music history professor at the University of Denver told the paper of his "absolute shock" at discovering the song's use in England.

While James W Cook of the University of Michigan says he finds the appropriation of the song "troubling" he admits that "cultural products move and adapt and morph as they move from place to place".

But, as Daniel Schofield of the Daily Telegraph notes, many England rugby fans "will be unaware of its origins or meaning, even if the lyrics are clear". And he points out that it's not only England fans who have a dubious history of adopting songs for their own ends.

"Labour MP Chris Bryant last month called for Welsh supporters to abandon Tom Jones song Delilah arguing that its depiction of murdering a prostitute glorifies domestic violence," he writes.

When asked about Swing Low, England prop Mako Vunipola, who is of Tongan descent, said he was unaware of the song's origins and apologised to anyone who was offended.

"I had no idea about that," he said, reports The Times. "I don't know if it's relevant. If the fans want to sing it then let them sing it, but obviously if people find it offensive, then sorry."

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