illustration of two Black angels with hands upraised supporting another Black person who is walking in the sky

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

Lines 1-4:
The first stanza consists of two repeated lines that introduce the main image of the poem, a chariot that descends from the sky to carry the speaker home. For some singers and listeners, the chariot may represent the path to freedom offered by organized abolitionists through the Underground Railroad. For others it could symbolize a chariot of the Lord offering transportation for the soul to heaven. This interpretation has its origin in the Bible, which contains descriptions of chariots used in war as well as to transport honored souls, such as the prophet Elijah's, to heaven. Since the chariot in this song is "sweet" it suggests a conveyance to heaven more than to battle in war. "Psalm 68" in the Bible's book of Psalms, for example, depicts God as having thousands of chariots, a sign of his power. In addition to the imagery here, this stanza uses alliteration—the "s" in "swing" and "sweet." This and all of the stanzas exhibit alliteration of the "k" sound in "comin" and "carry," two words from the repeated chorus. The chorus is meant to be sung by a group, whereas the first and third lines of each stanza are intended to be sung by an individual, the spiritual leader.

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Lines 5-6:
In the second stanza, the lead voice sings about a group of angels coming from Jordan, the river that flows from the Sea of Galilee through the biblical Holy Land. According to the Bible, a group of Israelites crossed the Jordan River in their quest for the Promised Land. The Jordan is also significant because the Bible indicates that it is the river in which John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ. And just as the Egyptian slaves had a river to cross in their journey, African slaves who escaped often did so by crossing the Ohio River to the North, where slavery was illegal.

Lines 7-8:
The word "band" suggests strength, as in the expression "to band together," meaning to join forces. "Band" also implies an unbreakable union in the image of a circular construction, a hoop-like form. Lastly, "band" calls up images of music from the definition of an ensemble of musicians. In the Bible, "angels" deliver messages for God. They assist, protect and deliver those faithful to the Lord. Altogether, this stanza (lines 5-8) evokes the idea deliverance and acceptance by the Lord, a theme taught in the Bible and one that the American slaves personalized in their desire for freedom. In addition to the imagery, this stanza, like the chorus, uses alliteration: the "m" and "n" sounds in "Jordan," "an'," "comin," "me," "home," "band," and "angels." The frequency of these sounds gives a very soothing, melodious quality to the lyrics.

Lines 9-12:
In the final stanza, the singers express an optimistic determination to reach home, the land of literal or spiritual freedom. The lead singer tells the audience that, should they be liberated first, they should tell the singer's friends that he or she will join them too. The suggestion that the singer will join his or her friends works in both the metaphorical and spiritual interpretation of the song. If the listener thinks of the song as an expression of hope for liberation from slavery, then the friends would be those slaves who have already escaped. If the song expresses the slaves' wish to enter heaven, then the friends would be those whose souls have already ascended. Wherever the destination, the song succeeds in conveying an unwavering hope that the singers will successfully join their friends. The frequency of the chorus, sung every third and last line in each stanza, has the effect of affirming this promise that the "chariot" will indeed carry its singers "home."

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