Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
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Despite what the painting suggests, the song the painting is named after isn’t actually about the angels taking the dying up to heaven.  Kinda missed the mark there, John.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was a code song.  Code songs were often spirituals or hymns that were worded in a way as to seem harmless and unassuming to white slave owners, but had heavy reference to the Underground Railroad and escape to the North under all of the biblical symbolism.  The “chariot” was the Underground Railroad, the “River Jordan” was actually the Mississippi or Ohio River, and so forth.  Another interpretation of the song was that it was a reference to the town of Ripley, OH, which was one of the first and busiest “stations” the Underground Railroad passed through.  It sat on a hill, to which slaves awaiting freedom across the Ohio River would look for solace from their long journey.

The locale depicted in the painting is Oxford, Mississippi, the “cultural Mecca of the South” and the home of William Faulkner and John Grisham.  The 50-acre area was once part of the Chickasaw Indian Nation, but was bought out by three men--John Chisholm, John J. Craig and John D. Martins--and incorporated in 1837.  It was named on a bid to secure itself as the location of the state’s university, which it successfully won when the Mississippi Legislature put it into motion in 1841.  The university since then has gone by the name “Ole Miss.”  The town was almost destroyed due to Sherman’s scorched earth tactics in 1864, which claimed not only many of the town’s historic buildings, but a regiment of Confederate soldiers that went to ‘Ole Miss called the University Greys.

Oxford has one more claim to fame: the town would see the first African-American enroll at ‘Ole Miss in 1962, on the rapidly rising waves of the civil rights movement.




  1. Rouse, Steve. 2001. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Manhattan Beach Music. 2001.