If Swing Low was started today, all hell would break loose
Posted: Wed Mar 14, 2018 12:12 pm
So says Will Carling
On Monday it will be 30 years since the first rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot rang from the Twickenham stands, triggered by a hat-trick from England wing Chris Oti.
It was an extraordinary coincidence that the spiritual slave song was sung as Oti was England’s first black player for more than 80 years.
And it is unthinkable in this day and age that it would be sung for the first time and not spark a social-media storm.
That is not lost on Will Carling, who was alongside Oti as Swing Low started to be heard. The former England captain said: “It was something that was sung when drinking and I heard it and thought ‘they are drinking!’
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“If you hadn’t been in the middle of the game you may have thought ‘bit inappropriate really’ when Chris has just scored a hat-trick.
“Can you imagine if that started up now at Twickenham for the first time — all hell would be let loose. But, I really don’t believe there has ever been any connotations about it being sung and I think there was just a group of guys drinking and singing at the game with all kinds of forfeits.”
While Swing Low remains a fixture in the English game, the whereabouts of the player who inspired the tribute remain a mystery. Oti, who is of Nigerian descent, is believed by former Wasps team-mates to be living in Africa but attempts to track him down by the club and Cambridge University, where he was a student, have drawn a blank.
In 1988 England had not scored a try at Twickenham for two years and were one game away from becoming only the third team in Five Nations’ history to go through the entire competition without crossing the try line.
However, England won 35-3 thanks to Oti scoring the first hat-trick at Twickenham for 64 years, leading to the singing of Swing Low, a 19th-century African-American spiritual.
It’s use in rugby has been attacked in America where Josephine Wright, a professor of music and black studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio, said: “Such cross-cultural appropriations of U.S. slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave.”
The question of who started the song almost 30 years ago has not provided a definitive answer.
Dave Hales, from Market Bosworth Rugby Club, claims members from his clun were responsible. He told BBC Radio Leicester: “We were in the North Stand having a bit of a good time, a good day. We started trying to get a few songs going. Various ones didn’t really catch on. All of a sudden I started singing Swing Low and the next thing you know the crowd round us was singing it, then the whole North Stand seemed to be singing it, and then the whole ground seemed to be singing it. The atmosphere was just absolutely brilliant really.”
However, another theory is that it was started by a group of boys at the game from Douai School in Berkshire who used it to celebrate tries scored by the first XV at school.
A version called Swing Low (Run With The Ball) was recorded by the England squad for the 1991 Rugby World Cup. Other versions have been made for subsequent Rugby World Cups, including those by UB40 and Russell Watson.
Now, 30 years on, England have been urged to recapture the attacking magic that saw ‘Swing Low’ sung at Twickenham for the first time. Simon Halliday, who gave Oti the pass to score his second try, wants England to unleash the same kind of attacking power to ruin Ireland’s bid for the Grand Slam at Twickenham on Saturday.
Halliday, now president of European Professional Club Rugby, said: “What happened that day is that nobody thought England could play and we got a bit of quick ball and it all clicked. On Saturday, we need to face Ireland down and we cannot allow the Irish to come to our place and play their game.
“We got rid of a lot of demons against the Irish in 1988 and found one or two stars. Let’s hope that England do the same on Saturday.”