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Rugby fans singing ‘Swing Low’ under review due to slavery links

By AFP June 20th, 2020 2 min read

The sound of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ being belted out by an 80,000 crowd at Twickenham could become a thing of the past after the Rugby Football Union said Thursday it was looking into the singing of the song by England fans amid suggestions many supporters are unaware of its origins as a tale of American slavery.

England followers have previously been accused before of “cultural appropriation” when ‘Swing Low’ has both echoed round the RFU’s London headquarters and been heard at away games.

But the recent Black Lives Matter protests, which included the toppling of a statue of a slave trader in the English city of Bristol, have led many British organisations to examine their historic links to slavery.

“The RFU has stated we need to do more to achieve diversity and we are determined to accelerate change and grow awareness,” a spokesperson for the English governing body said Thursday.

“The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot song has long been part of the culture of rugby and is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or sensitivities.

“We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions.”

England forward Maro Itoje, one of several black and mixed race players in the current squad, recently said: “I don’t think anyone at Twickenham is singing it with malicious intent.

“But the background of that song is complicated.”.

Reportedly written by American slave Wallace Willis sometime in the mid-19th Century, ‘Swing Low’ is first believed to have been sung at Twickenham when Martin ‘Chariots’ Offiah (his nickname derived from the Oscar-winning film ‘Chariots of Fire’) was playing in the 1987 Middlesex Sevens tournament.

It became popular with England fans the following year when Chris Oti, another black player, scored a hat-trick against Ireland at Twickenham.

But former England hooker Brian Moore, who said he could remember Swing Low being sung in junior rugby clubs during the 1970s, insisted he would have no qualms about it being banned by the RFU — even though the lyrics can currently be seen all round Twickenham.

– ‘Hated it’ –

“I have always hated it,” he told the Telegraph.

“It is not appropriate. It has slave connotations and if the RFU makes that ruling I would be pleased.”

An anonymous source told the Telegraph one option was to “stop this being sung at matches”.

But Daniel Hannan, a British Conservative politician and a former member of the European Parliament, said talk of a ban was “demented”, adding no-one listening to it had been hurt.

“Why do people keep looking for reasons to be offended?,” he added.

Meanwhile others questioned how the RFU would enforce a ban while Jack Duncan, a member of London rugby club Harlequins, tweeted the furore “felt like a dog whistle from the right-wing press to give people an excuse to turn on BLM using the whole ‘where will it end!?’ angle”.

This is not the first time rugby fans have faced calls to stop singing a favourite song.

‘Delilah’, a hit for Welsh pop star Tom Jones in the late 1960s, is a familiar sound at Wales games.

But Chris Bryant, a Labour MP from Wales, has said Delilah should no longer be heard at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium because the song glorifies violence against women.

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said this week the organisation had to do more “to achieve diversity across all areas of the game including administration”, with former England women’s international Maggie Alphonsi the only black member of its 55-strong council.