Hear the Recently Discovered, Earliest Known Recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (1894)

As keen observers of Amer­i­can cul­ture and his­to­ry like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Elli­son have writ­ten, there is no Amer­i­can music with­out African-Amer­i­can music. The his­to­ry of the record­ing indus­try bears wit­ness to the fact, with jazz, blues, and rag­time dom­i­nat­ing the ear­ly releas­es that drove the indus­try for­ward. Before these pop­u­lar forms and the age of “race records,” how­ev­er, came the spir­i­tu­als, gospel songs dat­ing back to slav­ery, whose fame spread across the world in the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tu­ry with groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers. As Du Bois wrote in 1903, “their songs con­quered till they sang across the land and across the sea, before Queen and Kaiser, in Scot­land and Ire­land, Hol­land and Switzer­land… they tell of death and suf­fer­ing and unvoiced long­ing toward a truer world, of misty wan­der­ings and hid­den ways.”

Giv­en the world­wide fas­ci­na­tion with the spir­i­tu­al and the singing groups who spread them across the world, it’s no won­der this was sought-after mate­r­i­al for a nascent indus­try eager for music that appealed to the mass­es. And no spir­i­tu­al has had more mass appeal than “Swing Low, Sweet Char­i­ot.”

The first record­ing of the song was long thought to have been per­formed in 1909 by a four­some, the Fisk Uni­ver­si­ty Jubilee Quar­tet, “car­ry­ing on the lega­cy,” notes Pub­lic Domain Review, “of the orig­i­nal Fisk Jubilee Singers of the 1870s.” You can hear that record­ing below, made by Vic­tor Stu­dios.

Even before the turn of the cen­tu­ry, writes Toni Ander­son at the Library of Con­gress, “the musi­cal land­scape was pep­pered with over ten com­pa­nies fash­ioned after the orig­i­nal Jubilee Singers, and by the 1890s, many black groups had launched suc­cess­ful for­eign tours.” (Du Bois laments the poor qual­i­ty of many of these imi­ta­tors.) The 1909 record­ing, writes Pub­lic Domain Review, “pop­u­lar­ized the song huge­ly,” or, we might say, even more huge­ly, help­ing to make it a sta­ple in decades to come for artists like Paul Robe­son, Louis Arm­strong, Etta James, John­ny Cash, and Eric Clap­ton (in a 1975 reg­gae take). How­ev­er, it turns out that an even ear­li­er record­ing exists, made by one of those suc­cess­ful trav­el­ing groups, the Stan­dard Quar­tette, in 1894.

Record­ed on a wax cylin­der by Colum­bia Records in Wash­ing­ton, DC while the group made a stop on a spring tour, this “’holy grail’ of ear­ly record­ing his­to­ry,” writes Archeo­phone Records, “push­es back by fif­teen years the first known record­ing of the clas­sic spir­i­tu­al,” but it might have been lost for­ev­er had not a care­ful col­lec­tor pre­served it and Archeophone’s Richard Mar­tin not iden­ti­fied its bad­ly-decayed sounds as “Swing Low, Sweet Char­i­ot.” The record­ing has been includ­ed on a 102-track com­pi­la­tion, Wax­ing the Gospel: Mass Evan­ge­lism and the Phono­graph, 1890–1900.

First dis­cov­ered on a “large group of dam­aged ear­ly cylinders—moldy, noisy, and thought to have no retriev­able con­tent,” the song has been unearthed from beneath “an ocean of noise.” What Archeophone’s Mea­gan Hen­nessey found is that the ver­sion “is very dif­fer­ent from what peo­ple expect. The cho­rus is famil­iar, but the vers­es are dif­fer­ent. The Stan­dard Quar­tette sing lyrics we asso­ciate with oth­er jubilee songs.” Also, as Mar­tin points out, the song’s arrange­ment is unusu­al: “there are com­plex things going on here with har­mo­ny and rhythm, but you’ve got to lis­ten close­ly through the noise.” (Learn more about the dis­cov­ery and restora­tion in the short video above.)

The song itself may have been writ­ten in the mid-1800s by an enslaved man named Wal­lace Willis, who was tak­en from Mis­sis­sip­pi to Okla­homa by his half-Choctaw own­er dur­ing forced relo­ca­tion in the 1830s, then “rent­ed out” to a school for Native boys. The head­mas­ter heard him sing it, and passed it on to the Jubilee singers. In anoth­er, more dra­mat­ic, account of the song’s com­po­si­tion, it “’burst forth’ from the anguished soul of Sarah Han­nah Shep­pard, the moth­er of Ella Shep­pard of Fisk Jubilee Singer fame,” when Sarah learned she would be sold and sep­a­rat­ed for­ev­er from her daugh­ter.

In his live per­for­mance of the song, above, John­ny Cash gives a pic­turesque ori­gin sto­ry of an anony­mous slave, “sit­ting on his cot­ton sack one day,” and singing about a vision of a char­i­ot. But what­ev­er the song’s true ori­gins, “Swing Low, Sweet Char­i­ot,” per­haps more than any oth­er pop­u­lar spir­i­tu­al of the 19th cen­tu­ry, has come to rep­re­sent the music, Du Bois wrote, through which “the slave spoke to the world.”

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Walt Whit­man (Maybe) Read­ing the First Four Lines of His Poem, “Amer­i­ca” (1890)

Hear Voic­es from the 19th Cen­tu­ry: Ten­nyson, Glad­stone & Tchaikovsky

Hear the First Jazz Record, Which Launched the Jazz Age: “Liv­ery Sta­ble Blues” (1917)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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