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Thu, 08.28.1873

Swing Low Sweet Chariot, a story

*This date, in 1873, celebrates the first public performance of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." 

It was written by Wallace Willis, a Black Choctaw freedman in Choctaw County near Hugo, Oklahoma, sometime before 1863. He may have been inspired by the sight of the Red River, by which he was working, which reminded him of the Bibles River Jordan and of the Prophet Elijah's being taken to heaven by a chariot. Some sources claim that this song and "Steal Away" (also sung by Willis) had lyrics that referred to the Underground Railroad, the freedom movement that helped blacks escape from Southern slavery to the North and Canada.  Alexander Reid, a minister at the Old Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding school, heard Willis singing these two songs and transcribed the words and melodies.

He sent the music to the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Jubilee Singers popularized the songs during a United States and Europe tour with John W. Work.  In 1939, Nazi Germany's Reich Music Examination Office added the song to a listing of "undesired and harmful" musical works.  The song resurged during the 1960s Civil Rights struggle and the folk revival; several artists performed it. Perhaps the most noted performance was that by Joan Baez during the 1969 Woodstock festival. Oklahoma State Senator Judy Eason McIntyre from Tulsa proposed a bill nominating "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" as the Oklahoma State official gospel song in 2011.

The bill was co-sponsored by the Oklahoma State Black Congressional Caucus. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed the bill into law on May 5, 2011, at a ceremony at the Oklahoma Cowboy Hall of Fame; making the song the official Oklahoma State Gospel Song. In 2002, the US Library of Congress honored the song as one of 50 recordings chosen that year to be added to the National Recording Registry. It was also included in the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

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