March 8, 2017

ALL ALONG THE ANGLOSPHERE:

How a Slave Spiritual Became English Rugby's Anthem (ANDREW KEH, MARCH 7, 2017, NY Times)

It is a famous refrain and melody. For many in the United States, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" enjoys a hallowed status as one of the cherished of 19th-century African-American spirituals, its forlorn lyrics invoking the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race.

But here, across 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.

"They start singing it when the game starts because they want everyone to get hyped up," said Helen Weston, 53, an England fan at the France game on Feb. 4. "There's nothing like hearing 80,000 people singing 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.'" [...]

English fans first sang the song on a large scale at Twickenham Stadium on March 19, 1988, as England recorded a memorable comeback victory over Ireland. Multiple people and groups since then have claimed responsibility for starting the chant.

The motivation is a matter of some intrigue. Over the years, English newspaper articles mentioning the chant's genesis that day matter-of-factly tied its emergence to the race of Chris Oti, who was the first black player to represent England's rugby team in almost a century, and who played a starring role in that game.

Dudley Wood, the former secretary of the Rugby Football Union, was quoted in The Independent in 1991 as saying that Oti "was totally mobbed on the way to the dressing room. It's a delicate situation in a way, in that it's a Negro spiritual. But we poor English don't really have the songs to sing."

Posted by at March 8, 2017 8:50 AM

  

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