In many Christian churches this morning, the first reading would have been from Second Kings, chapter two, where the prophet Elijah is taken by God while his assistant and successor Elisha (who had repeatedly refused to leave him) looks on. They are walking by the river Jordan when it happens.
And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
That image of chariots of fire coming for Elijah inspired the widely-beloved spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which is credited to Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman who is believed to have composed it sometime circa 1860.
YouTube is great for discerning the reach and popularity of a song. You can instantly see the range of performers who have sung it. A song like this one is off the charts. You can find a version by just about everyone from John McCormack to Justin Bieber (well, alright, neither of those two, actually, but you get my drift).
At right from YouTube is audio of as great a kind of baseline version as one could hear, from the recently departed Etta James.
It’s interesting, when you think about it, that the song is so popular, given its subject matter. Theologians might be able to discuss whether the Bible means us to believe that Elijah experienced death when the chariots arrived, or whether he was lifted up to God still breathing. I can’t say. But when ordinary folk sing the song, there’s no question but that it is in the name of evoking a joyful, hope-filled embrace of death itself. It is death characterized as going home, of-course, and there are countless songs in the Christian tradition that take this angle. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is noteworthy for its vigor and visceral power. You can really put your back into singing it, and swinging it. It’s easy enough to look back with a modern sensibility and understand how someone like Wallis Willis, as a former slave, would know how a person might yearn for the release of death and the promise of a life much better beyond. Yet, we all have our burdens, after all, and we all most certainly die, and the song continues to stir hearts and plumb souls.
At right via YouTube is as superior a rendition as anyone could hope for, from the peerless Louis Armstrong.
The first known recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909. It’s been performed by Johnny Mathis, The Grateful Dead, Beyoncé, Glenn Miller and Joan Baez, just to name a few names.
The reach of the song is so universal that it’s really not so surprising to encounter a version like the one at right, from a Romanian school choir.
In my wanderings on YouTube, my favorite discovery was a 1970 performance by Jerry Lee Lewis on TV, singing with a vocal group called the Rust College Quintet. It’s doubly interesting because first they perform another song—thematically identical but with different words and tune—called “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot.” It’s a more contemporary song, which Elvis sang in a movie or two. Then they sing the original “Swing Low.”
Who else would do both of these songs on the same show? It’s like ol’ Jerry Lee is giving a master class in gospel music. Both performances, naturally, are just killer.
If indulging my taste for Jerry Lee isn’t indulgence enough, I’m going to round this post off this way: The great but obscure British songwriter Paddy McAloon (anchor of pop group Prefab Sprout) composed an album’s worth of material, loosely arranged around the concept of music and the Divine, in the early 1990s. His record company wouldn’t underwrite the production of it, but a couple of years ago his original and quite spectacular homemade demotape was released as Let’s Change The World with Music.
One of the songs is titled “Sweet Gospel Music,” and in it the singer sings of a day when his heart was heavy, but, on hearing the sounds of a gospel group, he found himself transported away from trouble and danger. The song the singer describes hearing is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Out of this idea he fashions his own stirring and encouraging tune.
So does the story of Elijah and Elisha’s encounter with those chariots of fire, on the banks of the Jordan, continue to resonate down through history, to this day, and beyond. Evidence, I think, not only of the profundity of the Bible, but also of the very real link between music and the Divine.