Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1920. Harry Thacker Burleigh, 1866-1949. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: M1671.B
Burleigh's arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was originally published for solo voice in 1917 following the success of Deep River. This famous spiritual was first introduced to the concert stage by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1871. While the biblical basis for the spiritual's text can be found in II Kings: 2, 11, the origin of the piece is more closely associated with the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, where it served as a coded signal song. Burleigh 's setting was published in 1920 for mixed chorus by G. Ricordi & Co., New York. Antonín Dvořák, Burleigh's professor at the National Conservatory of Music, used the tune of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in his Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."
The SATB version of Burleigh's solo setting was arranged by Nathaniel Clifford Page (1866-1956). The piano accompaniment uses a repetitive, falling-chord figure throughout to create the "swing low" aural imagery. Page departs from the usual homophonic, chordal texture to introduce a brief imitation between the soprano and tenor on the second phrase of the spiritual. At the end of the opening refrain, Burleigh writes an eight-measure extension before moving into the first verse. Having cadenced in the tonic key of A-flat, Burleigh begins the extension with the head-motive harmonized in F minor. Then, shockingly, the motive is harmonized in F-flat major before moving directly back to A-flat in the next measure.