MARTIN SAMUEL: Why banning Swing Low just silences a black voice

MARTIN SAMUEL: Banning Swing Low, Sweet Chariot just silences a black voice… and why Roy Keane got it wrong on David de Gea

  • Understanding the background behind the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is key
  • The song is regularly belted out during England rugby matches at Twickenham
  • Elsewhere, David de Gea’s record at Man United shows Roy Keane was wrong
  • And how weekend’s Championship results show points-per-game is unfair

At the time William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison and Charles Pickard Ware were gathering material for their 1867 book Slave Songs of the United States, Wallace Willis had already made his name locally as a writer, and singer, of spirituals.

Willis was not his real name. It was given to him by his enslaver, Britt Willis, who owned a cotton plantation in Mississippi and later in Doaksville, Oklahoma. 

Wallace Willis composed his songs while working in the fields, and would sing them with his wife, Minerva. His most enduring, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, is believed to date from the 1840s.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is regularly belted out by England supporters during rugby matches

The compilers of Slave Songs of the United States were abolitionists and this was the first published collection of African-American music. The words and melodies came directly from the singers they encountered, as did many of the interpretations, commentaries and variations of 136 songs.

Slave Songs of the United States remains one of the most important documents in American cultural history. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is not in there, and a great number of the pieces that are, have faded into obscurity. 

If a song is not sung, over time, it dies. Maybe not to all, but to most. Students of American folk music may be aware of I Want To Die Like-a Lazarus Die, but you probably aren’t.

More widely familiar is Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen because it has been performed by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Lena Horne, and in everything from The Lion King to The Big Bang Theory. Yet both songs are first to be found in Slave Songs of the United States.

So, if Willis knew that, 180 years on, one of his compositions lived and was sung by people on another continent in their tens of thousands, no matter the context, he would probably be happy. 

He might not even worry about the colour or class of the singers, or whether it was their song to sing. If his voice could be heard, and his words could be felt and understood, that might be enough.

And to that end, what good would a ban on the singing of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot at Twickenham serve? It would silence an authentic black voice, and an authentic black sentiment. And it is not as if English rugby has a surfeit of those right now.

Banning Swing Low, Sweet Chariot at Twickenham would silence an authentic black voice

The key is understanding. Words are important, too. The jazz pianist Billy Taylor wrote a beautiful song called I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, which he included on his 1963 album Right Here, Right Now

Most people of a certain age will know it, although they won’t recognise it from the title because the BBC Film… series, presented by Barry Norman and later Jonathan Ross and Claudia Winkleman, used the instrumental version Taylor recorded in 1967. For this reason, Taylor’s vocal sentiment, the one that chimed with the civil rights movement at the time of its release, is increasingly obscured.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot would not disappear because 80,000 rugby types had to drop it from their repertoire at Twickenham. Yet this is a teachable moment. 

Its rebirth as a rugby song, born off a pun on the name of an old England rugby player — Martin ‘Chariots’ Offiah — and the awareness raised by the Black Lives Matter movement have met at a fortuitous juncture.

Instead of another misplaced cultural reckoning, in which both sides end up feeling alienated and misunderstood, there is an opportunity to learn about the song’s meaning, about its roots — not merely as a rugby verse, but as Willis intended. 

Stuart Barnes, writing in The Times, suggested getting a gospel choir to sing it before matches. That wouldn’t alter its rendition during games, but it is a much smarter idea than attempted abolition.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a song longing for death, above slavery. It does not in any way belittle or trivialise the horrors of its time. It is not, for instance, Pick A Bale Of Cotton. If there were a load of white guys at Twickenham singing Pick A Bale Of Cotton that would be downright offensive.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’s birth as a rugby song is from a pun on Martin ‘Chariot’ Offiah (top)

It might have been written about hard agricultural labour long after slavery had ended, and been popularised by Lead Belly, one of the truly great black American artists, but its lyrics are problematic. 

It sounds like a slave song and its earliest versions featured repeated racial epithets, which have only disappeared over time. 

So just because a song was written by a slave does not make it demeaning; and just because a song was popularised by a bona fide black musical genius — ‘Without Lead Belly, no Beatles,’ said George Harrison, and no Van Morrison, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix or Nirvana, either — does not make it a comfortable fit in 2020.

Context and nuance are crucial. Former England international Maggie Alphonsi says she no longer sings Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which is plainly her right, but why? What is being said? That slavery is an abomination. Whose narrative, and experience, is then being suppressed? That of black America.

And even if the motivation for the Twickenham chorus is support for the XV, not protest, is that really such a crime? It means two centuries on from a blighted existence in a Mississippi cotton field, Willis’ voice and his powerful message abide. Instead of trying to silence him, we should know why that matters.

De Gea’s string of awards show Keane’s in the wrong 

Roy Keane is a compelling pundit, but he was wrong about David de Gea. He wasn’t over-rated. He was the best player at Manchester United during some comparatively lean years, and everyone at the club knew it.

It must be quite difficult for a keeper to win an individual award at his club. It’s a tacit admission that the team’s been a bit rubbish, and he’s kept them in it. 

Roy Keane was furious with Man United goalkeeper David de Gea after his mistake on Friday

Nonetheless, De Gea won the players’ player award in three out of five seasons between 2013-14 and 2017-18, and the fans’ award in four of those campaigns, beating a record set by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Keane may be right that De Gea has lost his way in the last two seasons, but he is erasing a significant stretch of excellence preceding that. 

For much of De Gea’s time at Old Trafford, United would have been less than middling without him.

Wilder talks about legal action but club can’t get lucky twice 

Sheffield United got lucky in 2008 with the Lord Griffiths ruling. They scored fewer goals away from home, and lost more away games than any other team in the league in 2006-07, and that somehow became the work of Carlos Tevez and West Ham. 

Lord Griffiths also decided it was Tevez who was responsible for Sheffield United’s defeat at home to Wigan on the final day of the season which sent them down, and for the fact they took eight points from a possible 33 after February 10. West Ham ended up paying Sheffield United more than £10million.

At the time Griffiths’ verdict — in effect, that a club was not responsible for its own league position — seemed calamitous because it opened the door to so many legal challenges. 

In fact, it barely exists as a precedent these days because football wisely acknowledged its rogue nature and no club has pursued that path since. 

Until last week, when Sheffield United were unlucky with a technology call at Aston Villa, and immediately raised the possibility of a return to law. 

Yes, it was unfortunate to be on the wrong end of a 9,000-1 chance missed call by Hawk-Eye’s goal-line technology. Yes, it was poor that VAR did not have the gumption to call it to referee Michael Oliver. 

Sheffield United were unlucky with a goal-line technology call against Aston Villa last week

Yet to speak, as Chris Wilder did, of legal redress if Sheffield United missed out on Europe by the two points lost, ensured wider sympathy swiftly evaporated. It was a mistake, but they happen. The technology failed and humans have been taught not to trust their eyes. Frustrating, yes. But actionable?

The error happened in the 41st minute. That means Sheffield United had 49 minutes plus two sets of additional time to defeat Aston Villa, and did not. A legal suit would also have to presume that the game would have unfolded identically and the goal would not have influenced Villa’s approach: their game plan would not have changed whether losing or drawing. 

Sheffield United would then need to prove this single incident was the reason for their failure to reach Europe rather than — say — Sunday’s 3-0 defeat at Newcastle, or home defeats by Leicester, Southampton and Newcastle. 

West Ham got lucky in 2007 because they should have been deducted points that would, in all likelihood, have relegated them. Yet Griffiths’ judgement was flawed. He died in 2015, aged 91, and we wish Sheffield United well finding another sound legal mind who seconds him.

Sport’s green slogan: Do as we say, not as we do 

A climate change pressure group, the Rapid Transition Alliance, has condemned the carbon footprint of global sport.

Andrew Simms, its co-ordinator, said: ‘Sport provides some of society’s most influential role models. If sport can change how it operates to act at the speed and scale necessary to halt the climate emergency, others will follow.’

Wise words; but how does this work in practice? Katie Rood, a New Zealand footballer playing for Lewes, is also a committed environmentalist.

She participated in the Extinction Rebellion protests in London last year. She also flies around the world, commuting between northern and southern hemispheres to represent her country. How so? 

Katie Rood, a New Zealand footballer playing for Lewes, is also a committed environmentalist

‘I try to use my platform as much as possible to bring awareness, and help people realise and change positively for the environment,’ she told The Guardian.

OK. So she’s passionately committed to fighting for the planet, right up until the moment it might affect her personally.

Your flight isn’t necessary, hers is vital — AKA The Emma Thompson School of Environmental Action. No doubt sport can find plenty of role models like that.

Dean’s display made me bristle 

It’s hard to get a haircut these days. It’s not hard to have a shave. It’s almost as if Mike Dean craved attention without fans inside Goodison Park on Sunday. 

Some things never change — like him booking Lucas Digne for the best tackle of the game.

Championship results highlight folly of points per game 

Howard Wilkinson, the chairman of the League Managers Association, owes Lee Bowyer a big apology. The pair clashed during a conference call in May when Wilkinson advocated points per game as a way of deciding promotion and relegation. 

Bowyer’s club, Charlton, had slipped into the bottom three of the Championship just before suspension and would have gone down on PPG. He was angry Wilkinson would advocate such dramatic consequences for a moment in time.

What happened next? Well, the season restarted, Charlton won at Hull and are now six places off the bottom. Their rise demonstrates the random brutality of PPG.

Meanwhile, at the top, a little turbulence for those we were told had earned the right to a place in the Premier League after just 37 matches of 46. Leeds lost at Cardiff, and West Brom drew 0-0 against Birmingham, making it five hours and 15 minutes since they last scored a league goal.

The weekend’s Championship results show why Howard Wilkinson’s PPG proposal was unfair

The only reason that these results did not have greater impact was that the third-placed team, Fulham, lost at home to Brentford. 

And this group was argued to have more right to a Premier League existence than Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich, who all earned promotion playing every minute of a full campaign. West Brom visit Brentford on Friday and defeat would leave just five points between those clubs. The same for Leeds were they to lose to Fulham.

It may be that Charlton go down. It may be that Leeds and West Brom go up. Yet no club deserved elevation or demotion with nine games to play, and it was shameful that this was allowed in the divisions below.

Pogba has tons of catching up to do 

Paul Pogba was outstanding for Manchester United across 28 minutes on Friday. A full match is 90 minutes, a full season is 3,420. 

For £90million, Pogba needs to be hitting that level across four figures, not two.

So not only can VAR not spot a ball over the line, they cannot see a hand around the throat. 

Matteo Guendouzi has not faced any punishment for grabbing the throat of Neal Maupay 

Matteo Guendouzi got away with a violent reaction to Arsenal’s defeat at Brighton, seizing match-winner Neal Maupay after the final whistle. 

It was announced on Monday that he does not face punishment as VAR saw the incident but chose not to act. 

It is truly astounding what these guys consider their business, and what they do not.    




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