The Power of Song

My dad, an avid Springbok and Sharks supporter, also sang in a choir, or so I thought for many years. Every Friday night he would eat a tin of sardines in oil, then head off to what he and his mates called Choir Practice. Every Friday night, he would stumble back, still singing. He had a good voice, and still does. He taught us girls all the songs, mostly Scottish ballads and English ditties. Listening to that baritone voice, piping up as he sung Swing High Sweet Chariot to my daughters the other night, (his voice as well and truly oiled as those sardines) reminded me of another time when it had such an enormous effect.

A time when the song lifted an entire crowd and fuelled a team.

England has no National Anthem. At every international rugby match we hear God Save the Queen and then Land of Hope and Glory before kick off. However, that is not an English anthem, it is a British one.

Three songs are played depending on which sport. The Common Wealth games use Jerusalem. Rugby League - God Save the Queen, Test Cricket - Jerusalem, and for Lacrosse, the men use God Save the Queen and the women Land of Hope and Glory.

Seems that no-one can make up their minds about which patriotic song should be sung. A bit of an English muddle.

There was one game in 1988 however, in which a mere song seemed to change the outcome of a game, a high note flowing and carrying the players along and striking a chord in everyone.

England were playing Ireland at Twickenham, the last game of the Five Nations in which they had lost 15 of their 22 matches. Half time and they were down 0-3. The mood was tense. Only 1 try had been scored in 2 years at this stadium. The players were hungry, as were the fans.

Amongst the crowd were the first XV rugby team from the Douai Abbey school, a seminary for boys in Woolhampton (Closed down in 1999.) Run by Benedictine monks, they surprisingly had a rugby team in their school, and Swing Low was their special rugby song. Why, one may ask, is an American gospel song, long seen to have connections with the slavery Underground Railroad, a rugby song? Perhaps the connotations of escape and evasion is likened to rugby.

The boys were seated at the front of the lower East end and if there was any chance that a try may be scored they would start singing. Chris Oti, in his debut that day, scored the first try in the second half, breaking the Twickenham drought. Apart from the crowd roaring in delight, the Douai Abbey team bellowed out Swing Low Sweet Chariot in their passionate choir voices. Chris Oti then did the unthinkable, and scored another try. Once again, the Twickenham crowd went wild, the students launched into another rendition of Swing Low, and the spectators surrounding them all joined in. Things were happening. The crowd were revved, and so were the players. The deluge had begun.

Although three other tries were scored, one by Rees and two by Underwood, it was Oti's third try, a hat trick which had not been accomplished in a championship in Twickenham since 1924, that caused the entire stadium, started by the Douai Abbey boys, to erupt into that spine chilling song (when sung correctly and not by one drunk rugby fan) Swing Low Sweet Chariot. England won 35-3 and a new rugby anthem was born.

It was unofficially adopted as the rugby anthem in 1991 after producer Charlie Skarbek was asked to come up with music to celebrate the upcoming Rugby World Cup being hosted in Britain, France and Ireland that year. Swing Low was sung by Union and included the players themselves and actually made it to number 16 on the charts, starting a new World Cup tradition.

In the 1995 RWC, Ladysmith Black Mambazo jazzed it up with China Black, coming 15 in the charts, Russel Watson crooned the song to number 38 in 1997 and in 2003, the year England won the World Cup, it was sung by none other than UB40 which made it to number 15 on the charts. The plane carrying them triumphantly back home from Australia was appropriately dubbed the 'Sweet Chariot'. As they would say in New Zealand, that was sweet as. Blake sang it like my dad in 2007 and I personally think they lost the plot, (apart from the World Cup) in 2011 when Kiwi group Our Lady Muse recorded a party themed version.

So why do England have a rugby anthem from the United States? Not only that, but a gospel song sung about slaves. I have no idea. The only story I can give you is the one above regarding the Douia Abbey boys, and since they were from a Benedictine monastery, it makes sense that one of their songs would be a spiritual one.

Although its first recording is said to be in 1909 by the Jubilee Singers, it was written by Wallace Willis, a Choktaw Freedman (Enslaved African American who became part of the American Indian Choctaw Nation after being freed after the American Civil War), some time before 1862. It is said that he sung this about the Underground Railway, a system where slaves were helped to escape the cotton estates from the South, into the North and Canada, using Quaker houses, secret paths, boats, ships, trains and wagons (hence the chariot connection).

No matter its origins, nor if some people dislike this song, when you hear a crowd of 82 000 belt it out, when it drowns out the haka, you know that you are listening to something special. And just like the haka, every nation needs that something special to bring its people together.


Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming forth to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming forth to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming forth to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming forth to carry me home.


Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming forth to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming forth to carry me home)


The brightest day that I can say,
(Coming forth to carry me home)
When Jesus washed my sins away.
(Coming forth to carry me home)


If I get there before you do,
(Coming forth to carry me home)
I'll cut a hole and pull you through.
(Coming forth to carry me home)


If you get there before I do,
(Coming forth to carry me home)
Tell all my friends I'm coming too.
(Coming forth to carry me home)

1 comment


Pretty intense. Still, if you rellay want to respond to the Haka with something appropriate and Australian, I suggest a brisk and lively version of the locomotion. That ought to give them something to think about.

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