Behind the Song: Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a well-known and popular African American spiritual.

The song 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 after 1865.

Historians believe he may have been inspired by the sight of the Red River, near where he worked. It is aid he was reminded of the Jordan River and the Prophet Elijah’s “being taken to heaven by a chariot. {2 Kings 2:11}.

Willis is also credited with writing Steal Away, I’m a Rollin, and The Angels are Coming. Music historians believe his songs may have been used along the Underground Railroad.


Alexander Reid, a minister at the Old Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding school, heard Willis singing and transcribed the words and lyrics. He sent the transcription to  Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee who popularized the song.

Many artists have recorded the song over the last century, including Elvis, Johnny Cash, Etta James and Beyoncé .

Jesus with Elijah and Moses

In 2011, a law was signed proclaiming the song as the official gospel song of the state of Oklahoma.

The earliest known recording was in 1909, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University.

In 2002, the Library of Congress added the songs to its National Recording Registry. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 2015, the song became the official England Rugby theme song.

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