Rugby

English rugby reviewing context behind popular 'Swing Low' anthem

AP

English rugby bosses are conducting a review of the "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” anthem regularly sung by supporters of the national team because of its links to slavery.

The song has come under renewed focus during the recent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has seen statues of historical figures being defaced or toppled and some institutions facing scrutiny.

Reportedly written by American slave Wallace Willis sometime in the mid-19th century, "Swing Low" is first believed to have been sung at Twickenham when Martin "Chariots" Offiah, whose nickname was derived from the Oscar-winning film "Chariots of Fire," was playing in the 1987 Middlesex Sevens tournament.

It became popular with England fans the following year when Chris Oti, another black player, scored a hat trick against Ireland at Twickenham.

The RFU said it was "reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions.”

"The RFU has stated we need to do more to achieve diversity and we are determined to accelerate change and grow awareness,” the governing body said in a statement.

"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.”

England forward Maro Itoje, one of several black and mixed race players in the current squad, recently said the background of the song was "complicated."

But former England hooker Brian Moore, who said he could remember Swing Low being sung in junior rugby clubs during the 1970s, insisted he would have no qualms about it being banned by the Rugby Football Union — even though the lyrics are emblazoned around England's national stadium.

"I have always hated it," he told the Telegraph.

"It is not appropriate. It has slave connotations and if the RFU makes that ruling I would be pleased."

But Daniel Hannan, a Conservative politician and a former member of the European Parliament, said opposition to "Swing Low" at rugby matches was "demented," adding no one singing the song was doing so maliciously and that no one listening to it had been hurt.

Others asked how fans would be stopped from belting out Swing Low.

Meanwhile Jack Duncan, a member of London rugby club Harlequins, tweeted that talk of a ban "felt like a dog whistle from the right-wing press to give people an excuse to turn on BLM using the whole 'where will it end!?' angle."

This is not the first time rugby fans have faced calls to stop singing a favorite song.

"Delilah," a hit for Welsh pop star Tom Jones in the late 1960s, is a familiar sound at Wales games.

But Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda, has said Delilah should no longer be heard at Cardiff's Principality Stadium because "the truth is that song is about the murder of a prostitute" and glorifies violence against women.

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said this week that his organization had to do more "to achieve diversity across all areas of the game including administration", with former England women's international Maggie Alphonsi the only black member of its 55-strong council.

Coronavirus banner