Welcome to Round 3 of the Chewsday Chew for 2023.
With no Super Rugby being played yet and with the 6Nations lads taking a weekend to catch up on admin and strikes and such, I confess to have been scratching around for a bit of content. To that end, I’ll take the opportunity to again remind our dear readers that we are a volunteer site. So, if anyone has something to say, or want to get something rugby related off their chest, or a just want to give this ‘writing game’ a crack, then feel free. Seriously, please do. Charlie and/or Sully will happily ‘put you up’. And I can always be reached on NuttaRugby@hotmail.com. Seriously, go ahead and have a crack because you will never know if you don’t have a go.
But all that being said, after last week’s concentration on the 6Nations anthems (both formal and otherwise), I thought to also have a bit of an irreverent gander at some of the other songs the 6Nations crowds tend to sing. I mean we all know the UK and Irish tend to treat their singing like their drinking – let’s not have just one when two or three will work nicely.
Beginning as we did last week with the English, the Kingsmen like to sing their “God Save
Prince Harry Princess Meghan Whomever” before then moving to the lyrical gymnastics of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”. Now I have to say the English use of this song completely baffles me. The style of this song is clearly and unapologetically African American Christian pentatonic, which is the cliched ‘call and reply’ slave song of the workhouse/field/church. By design it is a bombastically simple song construct and so is eminently well-suited to being lyrically reworked to suit the circumstances, again highlighting its usefulness in a forced labour style environment. So with all that said, beyond making smart-arsed references to the song being just another cultural edifice the English stole from somewhere else, exactly how the song style of African American slaves came to then be the chosen medium for the chosen sport of the English middle classes is, well, anything but obvious. But it is what it is.
I also can’t seem to find a clearly verified original composer for “Swing Low”. But a number of sources (including wiki) generally attribute it to a certain Wallace Willis who was a freed slave known as a ‘Choctaw Freedman’ who lived in Tennessee between 1865-1870. The song is about the Prophet Elijah trying to cross the river Jordan and being taken up to heaven. The reference to ‘swing low’ is so that a lowly sinner (aka the singer) can climb aboard said chariot and thus get to heaven (apparently). There are also some recognisable parallels in the phrasing and orientation of the lyrics that indicate the original intent was to also acknowledge the slave-escapee group made famous during the American civil war period known as the Underground Railway. Crossing the Jordan was akin to ‘going home’ and escaping slavery etc. But given the sensitivities of the day, that is more inferred than obvious (fair enough – such chat at the time, particularly in Tennessee, would likely get you hanged by the lads with the burning crosses and white pointy hats).
The song first rose to general prominence in the late 1860s via The Jubilee Singers who were a Capella ensemble from Fisk University of Nashville Tennessee who’d travel about America performing to raise funds for their college. Then in the early to mid 1870s they toured Europe and the UK a number of times as well and thus ‘spread the good word’ over the Atlantic.
The use of the song in English rugby is referenced as far back as the 1960s wherein it was a popular rugby ‘pub song’, well-known across many clubs, with typically rugby-idiotic hand actions accompanying the words. The point being, of course, was that those who got the actions incorrect were penalised by having to buy the next round of drinks. We’re all familiar with that concept. However, this joke hinging on ‘doing the wrong thing’ then became relevant in the 5Nations of 1988, when after having lost something like 25 of their past 30 matches, the English suddenly and completely unexpectedly scored 6 tries against the Irish in the 2nd half of an otherwise totally forgettable afternoon at Twickenham. Accordingly, folk in the crowd joked the English players had forgotten the actions of how they were ‘supposed’ to play rugby. Thus, as a wry joke, sections of the crowd started singing the most popular rugby song they knew related to forgetting what to do – ‘Swing Low’. And it went from there.
Alternatively, there are some stories saying it was first sung in homage of the great rugby league player Martin Nwokocha ‘Chariots’ Offiah. Frankly, I find that hard to believe. Do we seriously believe that Yorkshiremen came up with an idea to publicly sing a random African Amercian slave hymn from the 1870s in honour of a specific black footy player (his parents are Nigerian and his middle name is Nwokocha)? I find even the random baselessness of the other story being rooted in English public -school noncery far more believable than that.
Look, both stories are probably bovinial excrementus. But, knowing rugby as we do, both stories impart the sort of sarcastic humour we have all seen before: very English and self-deprecating in nature, and so it makes a sort of sense, even if uncomfortably so. Anyway, there it is.
Conversely to the English pinching a song from elsewhere, the Welsh faithful always seem to fall back on their own indefatigable “Cwm Rhondda” or “Bread of Heaven”.
The roots of this song appear to reach back to a small book of hymns published in 1762 and credited to William W Pantycelyn, an acknowledged master hymn composer. But the modern lyrics of the hymn are somewhat different to the original; understandably given it’s been translated and re-translated between English and Welsh any number of times since. As such, modern credit is given to a chap named John Hughes who reshaped it (again) for the opening of a chapel somewhere in some Welsh valley in about 1907 (apparently).
The hymn is another biblical link about escape etcetera and is rooted in Exodus 12-14 and the escape by the chosen people from Egypt through to the arrival in Canaan some 40 years later. Frankly, I’ve never understood this idea as Cairo to Jerusalem is barely 700km by the crow flying (745km by road). That distance could be walked in any form in well under 2 weeks. So, what in The Good Lord’s Name they were doing for the other 14,586 days, or 39 years, 11 months and 2 weeks, is simply beyond me.
Nonetheless, it’s hardly surprising that in the land of impossibly named valleys, where the cultural memory still hinges on the Welsh Revivalism of the early 1900s, wherein legions of preachers held court in innumerable pulpits, encouraging hymns to be sung with a gusto that belied their congregational number in countless little grey-rendered chapels spotted regularly across the countryside, that when the modern populations do genuflect in more modern worship in churches of concreted stadia the hymn will still ring out and shake the very foundations.
I’ll close today with a brief look at the Irish and their ubiquitous “Fields of Athenry”. Now interestingly enough, the song itself was only written in 1979 by Pete St.John with a version sung by Paddy Reilly in 1982 staying in the Irish music charts for a remarkable 72 weeks. 72 weeks of it? You’d think it was groundhog day.
Far from biblical references, this song is the story of a convict named Michael, presumably from Athenry (23km east of Galway), whose crime was that he “stole Trevelyan’s corn” to feed his starving children, was shot and caught and then deported in a prison ship to Australia. Trevelyan is a clear reference to Charles Edward Trevelyan, a thoroughly charming English civil servant who cut his teeth stomping Indians in Calcutta before being appointed to ‘relief works’ in Ireland during the Great Famine. The joke in all that was that Charlie quite sincerely believed that the Irish Famine was in fact an act of Devine Retribution on the “evil Irish” (yes, that’s a quote). He wrote more than once that the famine was “the judgement of God” on the “unholy Irish” and was “an effective mechanism for reducing the surplus of an otherwise undesirable population.” So one can guess about how genuine and effective his ‘relief’ programmes to help the same starving Irish were. By way of example, one of those programmes was to sell corn, a grain the Irish had no knowledge of how to use, at prices beyond what any peasant could pay, which then drove theft, which then reinforced the perception they were all thieving criminals to be hanged or transported. Brilliant.
And for his proactive work in helping around 25% of the Irish population to starve, while Ireland itself remained a net exporter of food throughout, Trevelyan was subsequently awarded the Order of the Bath. Good man that. Huzzah!
Anyway, since being first written, four versions of the song have ranked in the Irish Top10 popular music charts, and it has been picked up by soccer and rugby crowds alike. As such, it has not ever really been regarded as a sectarian song (Republican v Unionist), but rather more an all-purpose, all-Irish, general protest song. Accordingly, its use has courted controversy a number of times, particularly in 2021 when a crowd rendition drowned out the later stages of the New Zealand liturgical dancing at the Aviva Stadium:
Anyway, there you have it; a bit of a complementary follow up to last week’s look at national anthems. Am I right? Am I wrong? Let me know in the comments below.