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Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

ca. 1944 William H. Johnson Born: Florence, South Carolina 1901 Died: Central Islip, New York 1970 oil on paperboard 28 5/8 x 26 1/2 in. (72.6 x 67.2 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1983.95.52 Not currently on view


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Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
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"And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind unto heaven." 2 Kings 2:11, King James Version "Swing Low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home Swing low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home I looked over Jordan and what did I see Coming for to carry me home A band of angels coming after me Coming for to carry me home"

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In Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a line of fashionable angels welcomes a man to heaven. Having arrived by a horse-drawn chariot, he greets them with open arms. In the Bible, the prophet Elijah was carried to heaven by a chariot of fire at the end of his life. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is also the title of an African American spiritual of slave origins. The song is attributed to Wallace Willis, a slave from Oklahoma; his inspiration was the land beyond the Ohio River. Like other songs of resistance, the spiritual uses encoded language that would have been familiar to slaves. "Home" could mean either heaven or land of freedom. The lines "I looked over Jordan and what did I see/Coming for to carry me home/A band of angels coming after me" refers to the town of Ripley, Ohio, which was a station on the Underground Railroad. The town is located on a hill across the Ohio River, a difficult point of the journey to freedom. At this juncture, the fugitive slaves had to wait for helpers to arrive before they could continue. The artist, William H. Johnson, chose a subject that would have been familiar to African Americans, fashioning traditional religious symbols into an image meant for this community.

Keywords

Animal - horse

Architecture - vehicle - carriage

Ethnic - African-American

Figure group - female

Figure male - full length

Landscape - river

Religion - angel

painting

paint - oil

paperboard

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