Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Original Artist: Traditional
Historian: Martha Hunt
The lyrics of this traditional African-American spiritual are based on the biblical story of the prophet Elijah, who lived in northern Israel in the ninth century B.C. He was opposed to the worship of Ba'al, was a strong proponent of monotheism, and is recognized in both Christianity and Islam as a prophet. He was said not to have died, but, after passing on his mantle (the symbol of his power) and a double portion of his spirit to his disciple, Elisha, was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:9-12).
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was probably first sung by black American slaves, which gives the image of the chariot, “coming for to carry me home” a rather gruesome cast. It is a plea for escape from the miserable human existence, a plea to be transported “home,” to heaven, essentially, a plea for death.
The song has been performed by nearly everyone who can sing, at some point in their life. The Grateful Dead performed it at least 11 times, and it was on the soundtrack to The Trouble With Girls, memorably sung by Elvis Presley. Eric Clapton and Pete Seeger both have their own version of the song, as did Johnny Cash. Not to be outdone, Phish made this song their own in early shows, performing it instrumentally at gigs including 10/15/86, 4/29/87, and 8/21/87. Trey’s guitar handled the vocal lead, with Page, Mike, and Fish providing capable backup. Though fun, these early versions are somewhat lifeless, lacking in soul and emotion. The band breezes through them, and nothing very memorable occurs throughout, despite the adequate performances. After a few other appearances (6/18/88 and 10/20/89, the latter with Dave Grippo and Russ Remington on horns), the song disappeared from the band’s repertoire for about three years.
On 12/11/92, the song briefly showed up after a long absence, teased during “David Bowie.” It also resurfaced on 4/12/93, encased in a “YEM” vocal jam. But Phish’s most memorable performance of the tune has to be 11/16/94, done in bluegrass instrumentation with “Reverend” Jeff Mosier. Mosier provides banjo and vocals in what is the only version of the song Phish has performed with music and vocals. When it comes down to it, songs about throwing off the shackles of misery may not exactly be within Phish’s emotional reach, but the performances are fun and listen-worthy nonetheless.
Joan Baez "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" Live at Woodstock