Sports fans must be free to sing what they like

Rugby fans are in the dock again. Last year, Wales fans received a scolding from Labour Party MP Chris Bryant for singing ‘Delilah’, which he claimed was tantamount to a mass endorsement of domestic violence. Now England fans are being chastised. Why? Because American academics are accusing them of cultural appropriation for singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ (a spiritual first sung by slaves in the US).

Josephine Wright, professor of music and black studies at the College of Wooster, Ohio, argues that England fans are historically ignorant: ‘Such cross-cultural appropriations of US slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave.’ Wright says ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ is ‘not a drinking song’, and that it’s ‘demeaning’ for it to be sung at rugby matches. This sentiment was echoed by Arthur Jones from Denver University, who claims that the fans do not want to know about the song’s origins.

Should England fans be forced to abandon the song? Absolutely not. They started singing it in the 1980s, when the team were at a low ebb and needed rousing. It’s a powerful song of hope and fans clearly felt that it was what the team needed. That this moving song originates from a dark time in history doesn’t mean it can’t be used to celebrate a lighter moment in the present.

Some argue that sport is too frivolous a context for the reuse of a song born out of the horrors of slavery. But stopping fans from singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ would undermine cultural development and renewal. It would promote a kind of cultural apartheid, where those who want to share in a culture that doesn’t belong to them are accused of trespassing.

It’s patronising and insulting to suggest that England fans are ignorant of the past. But even if a fan doesn’t know the history of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, that doesn’t mean they can’t sing it. Much of the best of human culture has broken free from its historical roots. The test of the value of a song or a piece of art is often whether it survives and is enjoyed long after the historical context from which it emerged.

England rugby fans are giving new life and meaning to this song. And that’s a good thing. Culture needs to live free from constraint if it is to survive and flourish. England fans should continue to sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with passion, pint glass or champagne flute in hand, free from the hectoring of the culture police.

Steve Bremner is a writer and teacher based in London.

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