spirituals

New York Times offers faith-free take on rugby fans hijacking 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'

New York Times offers faith-free take on rugby fans hijacking 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'

Let me start by confessing that I know very little about rugby or the fan culture that surrounds it in some parts of the world. In other words, I am an American.

However, I do know a thing or two about church music. Basically, I have been singing in church choirs (and academic choirs dedicated to classical and sacred music) so long that I don't even remember when I started. My childhood memories have always included choirs.

Thus, allow me to make a few comments on half of the material found in a fascinating New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "How a Slave Spiritual Became English Rugby’s Anthem." The story is labeled "rugby," which implies that it was a sports feature. However, it was also featured in the "international" news section of the Times online round-up.

Obviously, I want to comment on the feature's religious content and lack thereof. Here is the overture:

LONDON -- Barely a minute had elapsed in the match between the national rugby teams of England and France when the song first boomed around the stands at Twickenham Stadium.
“Swing low, sweet chariot,” thousands of fans sang, “coming for to carry me home.”
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.

The feature includes quite a bit of material about rugby culture. It also does a fantastic job of describing the symbolic role that this spiritual -- it could also be called a folk hymn -- has played in African-American history.

So what is missing?

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