The choruses of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ that break out when England plays rugby can be quite something. It’s hard not to get swept up when it rings out during the build-up to a match, even more so when the team is on the field of play.
I’m more of a sports fan than I am a rugby fun. I've attended a huge variety of events. They range from the grandeur of the Fifa World Cup and the Olympics to the more earthy charms of an evening race meeting at a French trotting track in Normandy and a Minor League baseball match in Nashville, Tennessee. Even when set against the atmosphere at the former pair, those choruses of ‘Swing Low’ stand out. Rousing when the team is playing well, they provide the soothing balm of “we’re all in this together” when they’re not.
The New York Times, however, has put a rather different spin on the song's use, suggesting it might actually be grossly offensive to turn a spiritual from the slave-owning era in America into something as trivial as a sporting anthem. The newspaper recently sought the views of academics on its use by rugby fans generally, and those of England in particular. They were horrified. Take the reaction of Arthur Jones, a music history professor and founder of the Spiritual Project at the University of Denver. He told the newspaper that the situation reminded him of American sports teams who use Native American names and imagery, "in that a group of people seemed to be free-associating with imagery largely disconnected from its history".
“My first reaction is absolute shock – and I actually understand it when I think about it – but that’s my first reaction,” Jones said. “I feel kind of sad. I feel like the story of American chattel slavery and this incredible cultural tradition, built up within a community of people who were victims and often seen as incapable of standing up for themselves, [makes for] such a powerful story that I want the whole world to know about it."
At this point there will be those who charge in with accusations of “political correctness gone mad”, all the more so given the fact that the controversy has been stoked by academics speaking to a bastion of prissy American liberalism, otherwise known in this Trumpian era as “the enemy of the people”. I'd imagine the crux of their argument would rest on the lack of anything resembling ill intent on the part of the fans. And that is true. This is not the same as the singing of “No Surrender to the IRA” to the tune of the hymn “Give Me Joy In My Heart” by a minority of England football fans nearly two decades since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. A significant number among those that sing that song are well aware of its political overtones, and of its use as a marching song by the far-right English Defence League. Their intent is explicitly political, malign and racist.
The use of “Swing Low” by rugby fans is different. When England international Mako Vunipola, who is of Tongan descent, was made aware of its origins, he shrugged it off, telling The Daily Telegraph: “If the fans want to sing it then let them sing it, but obviously if people find it offensive then sorry.” I imagine the majority of England fans would buy into that. Until you consider the lyrics. When I read them, and thought about them, I felt slightly sick because they are a call for the release of death by a slave who has been brutally mistreated. Then I recalled the aforementioned trip to Nashville and the American South. The ugly legacy of slavery was everywhere. Some of what we saw in museums about how it operated was truly horrifying. Set against that, the use of the song in a sporting context? Well it makes me shudder, anyway.
It is certainly possible to over-moralise. But I still don’t think it is “political correctness gone mad” to suggest that it might be a nice idea to show willingness to consider other people's feelings and to refrain from singing a song if its use is considered insulting or out of order. It is simply a matter of being respectful. Of course, it ultimately has to be a personal decision. Not singing is just mine. There are many who feel like Vunipola, and that’s understandable, as Jones recognised. There are also many who, while they might have misgivings if they thought about it, would still join in after the belly full of beer that is de rigeur at a trip to the rugby.
Still, not singing the song in response to a plea from US academics and the New York Times would, to my mind, say something good about England rugby fans. It would show that they are grown-up enough to recognise that there is an issue here, and big enough to change as a result. If it's "only a song", why not pick another? In my case, not singing in response to an article published by the “enemy of the people”, and to pleas by liberal US academics, represents a middle finger to Donald Trump. But that too is my personal choice.