Wednesday, February 26, 2014

English Rugby Fans: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

They Sing What!?

No, you didn't read that incorrectly.  Fans of English Rugby, calling on the rich musical tradition of the great nation of England, sing the classic English sports fight song, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to spur on their beloved boys in Red.

Or did you mean...

Like... Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?  Like, that one?  Who sings it?  The English?  What!?

Let's Back Up...

As reported earlier, Ireland is in the middle of its 2014 Six Nations Rugby campaign.  Their first two matches were resounding wins, as they took out Scotland and Wales in successive weeks.  After a week off, Ireland was to face down the side (team) from England on Saturday, February 22nd.  Not being born or raised in Ireland, I can't really feel or describe the symbolic meaning of beating in sports the nation who colonized, harassed, and oppressed  you for 700+ years.  I can say it's big.

We didn't want to miss any of the action or the atmosphere of the local fans for this game, so we headed down to our closest pub, Kiely's- which also happens to be a big rugby pub.  We arrived almost two hours before the Ireland/England matchup was to kick off.  Scotland and Italy played a close and hard-fought match in Rome to kick off the Six Nations day of action.  Even then, with so much down time before the game, the pub was busy and filling up quickly.  We were lucky smart enough to arrive just in time to get some stools on a little bar island facing the extra projection screens the well-prepared staff of Kiely's had set up.  

As kickoff time arrived, the pub was absolutely packed with fans, mostly green-clad Ireland fans.  A few red and white jerseys mixed in with the crowd, giving a little more color and a little more... color to the excitement of the afternoon.

The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) is the national team of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Good on the Republic and the North to have this union and agreement to pool their skills in international rugby competitions.  The rest of the UK play under their own names, Scotland, Wales, and England.  No word from Anguilla, Bermuda, The Falkland Islands, or the rest of the British Empire United Kingdom Overseas Territories.

Because IRFU technically represents two different countries, they have their own neutral anthem that is played and sung at international competitions.  Ireland's Call represents the ideals of the people of all four historic provinces of Ireland, including Ulster, now Northern Ireland.  

The English, of course, sing their own anthem, Our Country, 'tis of Thee God Save the Queen.  No reason for me to gripe about politics here anymore, the countries are at peace... and there's a violent and exciting game on!

How 'Bout That Rugby?

After the anthems, all thoughts of politics were put aside as the ball was kicked off.  I had a rudimentary understanding of rugby before going to watch this game, but have never actually watched a match, beginning to end, with the sound of the announcers on.  There were a few points of the game I didn't know going in, and a few that I (intentionally) haven't looked up yet.

I won't bore (or infuriate) anyone with my own clumsy description of the rules of the game.  Suffice it to say it's physical, tense, and exciting.  The action is a bit like American Football with no forward passing and no downs.  When a player with the ball is brought down, the action continues.  The ball is handed to another player to dive into the pile of helmetless attackers.

This particular game was a real bruiser.  Both defenses were buckling down on their own goal lines, preventing any tries (like touchdowns) from being scored in the first half.

Let's glance at that, shall we.  A try in rugby is scored when a player crosses the goal line with the ball, but the player must touch down the ball on the ground to complete the score!  So in American Football, we have a touchdown scored when the ball crosses the imaginary two-dimensional plane of the goal line.  In rugby, the ball must be touched down on the ground to score a try.  Hmmmm...  Connection?  I think so.

In the second half, Ireland and England both scored a try, but every inch was hard-fought, and points did not come easily.  In the end, England edged out Ireland 13-10.  Ireland was denied a chance at the Triple Crown trophy awarded if any of Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales can beat the other three.  Better luck in the rest of the tournament, Ireland!

What About Swing Low?

Oh yeah, that.  Let's talk about that before we finish up.  In many world sports, fans sing.  They just do.  Stadiums break out into song all the time. We have gotten used to it.  Usually, to our ears, the songs are just mumbled gibberish from tens of thousands of screaming fans.  On this particular day, Sara the astute observer noticed the English fans singing this very beautiful and very out of place song.  She heard the melody, and confirmed it when a closeup of fans gave her a chance to read some lips.  

"They are singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!"  


"They are!  Listen!"

And by golly I eventually heard it.  They sang it over and over!  We were stunned and baffled by this extremely odd choice of athletic fight songs.

The song has a long tradition in America as a Negro Spiritual, and its lyrics are suspected to be a secret code relating to the Underground Railroad- a network of people who helped escaped slaves flee to the north.  The lyrics on the surface are about death, and being carried away from this terrible and tragic world by a glorious chariot of angels to a better place beyond this Earth.  What do the English want with it?

[Warning- as I was thinking and writing about this, I was hit with some very strong feelings, and I decided to express them here.  The following contains my own personal thoughts and opinions on this (more and more sensitive) subject.]

It turns out the tradition of the English singing the song dates back several decades, to a group of boys from a boarding school attending an England rugby match.  Swing Low was apparently a school song of their small private school.  According to legend Wikipedia, the boys began to sing the song... and I'm not making this up... when a Nigerian-English player, Chris Oti, scored several tries in succession to give England the lead.  In 1988!

Wait, so they sang the song at an African player in the game?  Americans, think to yourselves, what would happen at a ball game if a group of white fans sang that song at a black player in a sporting event- in 1988!  1988!  The layers of ignorance and racism in that are staggering.  Shall we break them down?

People of African descent are not interchangeable.  Many people with African ancestry identify with their African roots, just like so many white people identify themselves as "German," or "Irish."  To assume that anyone of African ancestry is descended from, and therefore should identify with the songs of, African-American slaves is incredibly ignorant.  To me, it's an insult to descendants of slaves and people of African ancestry who are not descended from slaves.  And that isn't just White American Guilt talking.

I guess it's too late now, traditions are traditions, after all.  It's quite interesting, putting aside my angry previous paragraph, to think about how this song could spread in popularity on this side of the Atlantic in the late 20th century.  People in America are much more aware of and sensitive to racial remarks and racist materials- even if so many Americans are still very racist.  Thinking of this song spreading after a group of white fans singing it at a black player is mind-spinningly crazy to me.

...I guess I have a lot more to learn about some of the hard to spot (and harder to describe) differences between Americans and Europeans.

Wow, That Got Dark Fast

Sorry about that if I upset any readers.  I didn't think I would ever write about race or racism on this normally so positive blog.  I saw this and felt in my gut that I had to write about it, if for nothing else, just to process and organize my own feelings about it.  I could have given it the usual joking treatment, and I even thought of some good ones (What'll they sing next, Ol' Man River Thames?), but this seemed deserving of a little more thought and respect- from me.  I do overanalyze and over-think a lot of the little differences I see here, but this one really caught me.  If that is acceptable here, then that is what is acceptable here, and I have to accept that.  I would seriously like to hear what an African-English person has to say about this.  Would she think it appropriate?  Would she think I am being too sensitive?  Or would she not be comfortable with it, but not have enough political or social clout to make a change?

I don't know.  Maybe I'm the ignorant one.  I'm open to learn, and I hope to someday.

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