Photo by Mariana Amaro, Flickr CC

Chants and songs are common in sports, but where do these chants and songs come from? A recent article in the New York Times explores how an African-American spiritual that illustrates the evils of slavery became a sports anthem for the English Rugby Team.

The song in question is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which has become a sporting, drinking anthem that unites the English in the world of rugby.  The song can be traced back to a famous comeback victory against Ireland in 1988 where the fans joyfully sang the song to celebrate the performance of Chris Oti, the first black rugby player to represent England in almost a century.

Scholars in African-American studies have mixed feelings about this appropriation. For example, Josephine Wright, a professor at College of Wooster in Ohio, believes that there is a complete lack of understanding regarding the complex history of “Swing Low.” In England, there are a fair amount of writers who have discussed putting an end to singing the song in rugby contexts. Wright explains,

“Such cross-cultural appropriations of U.S. slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave.”

However, John M. Williams, the director of the center for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, doesn’t think that telling people the song is American will change very many minds. He explains,

“The typical crowd that goes to watch the English national rugby team is not likely to be an audience that’s going to think hard about these types of questions or spend much time worrying about political correctness.”

James W. Cook, a historian at University of Michigan, noted that the United States has a long history of this kind of cultural exportation. He argued that it is often accompanied by a “historical amnesia” in which the history or cultural contexts of a song are forgotten. And while he thinks more education around “Swing Low” would be great, he admits that it may not change any minds. He states,

“When there’s any kind of boundary policing, that’s not a realistic understanding of how these cultural products move and adapt and morph as they move from place to place.”