Boris Johnson urges against ban of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot rugby song

19 June 2020, 12:05

Both teams line-up for the national anthem before the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham
Both teams line-up for the national anthem before the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Boris Johnson has said rugby fans should not be banned from singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as the sport's governing body reviews the historical context of the song.

With the ongoing focus on the Black Lives Matters protests, the RFU has launched a review into whether the song should be sung at games.

It decided many who enjoy the song do not know its story and stands ready to address the issue.

It is believed to have its roots in American slavery, with its credited author being Wallace Willis - a freed slave from 19th century Oklahoma.

The PM, a keen rugby fan, was asked about the song during a visit to a school in Hertfordshire.

He said: "As for Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, nobody as far as I understand it seems to know the words - whenever I go to a rugby match... before we start complaining about Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, I'd like to know what the rest of the words are.

"You go 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home', and then it all dies out. How does it go on? That's my question.

"I certainly don't think there should be any sort of prohibition on singing that song. My curiosity is why don't people seem to know the rest of it - I'd love to hear the rest of it."

The move has been backed by some, including former England international Brian Moore, who said he "hates" the song.

The RFU said in a statement on Thursday: "The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot song has long been part of the culture of rugby and is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or sensitivities.

"We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions."

Moore, who played 64 times for England between 1987 and 1995, says he never understood why it became so popular among spectators.

"It can go for me; I hate it," he wrote on Twitter.

"This was sung in rugby clubs when I was still a colt and well before Martin Offiah and Chris Oti played senior rugby.

"It was sung because of the rude gestures that went with it and without any thought of its origins. The world has moved on and, rightly, things that were normal then should not necessarily be normal now.

"Had today's context be known then it might not have been sung. Amongst other reasons for the RFU encouraging people not to sing it, one of the main ones is that most people only know two verses and it's crap as a national song because it has no relevance to England.

"It should be celebrated in its rightful context."

But the proposal prompted anger from others, including former UK equality watchdog chief Trevor Phillips.

In a series of tweets, he wrote: “So “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, celebrating the Underground Railway, written AFTER the Civil War by a freed slave, made popular by the African American Fisk Jubilee Singers, sung at many black funerals and civil rights demonstrations, honoured by Congress, now to be banned.

“It was a favourite of Paul Robeson, of Louis Armstrong and of Martin Luther King. The last attempt to ban the song was in 1939, in Germany.

“So black people’s own culture is also now to be cancelled. Please everyone, take a breath before you eliminate black lives from history.”