Oklahoma City, OK 73105
For Immediate Release: February 24, 2011
Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre
Senate sings praises of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as
state gospel song
The Senate supported legislation Thursday to make
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” Oklahoma’s official
gospel song. Sen. Eason McIntyre is the author of Senate Bill 73
recognizing the song written and composed by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw
freedman in the old Indian Territory, sometime before 1862.
“What a treasure Wallis Willis has been for not only our state,
but the world. This beautiful song has comforted millions as a favorite
at church and funeral services. It’s also been used in films,
on TV, and has been redone by many famous artists over the years,”
said Eason McIntyre, D-Tulsa. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is
a song that is deeply woven into the fabric of our culture. It’s
a song that we can all relate to; and I am so proud and humbled
to be a part of ensuring that this beautiful spiritual not only
stays in our hearts forever, but in our state’s history.”
Willis received his name from his owner, Britt Willis, probably
in Mississippi, the ancestral home of the Choctaws. Britt Willis
was a prominent citizen of the Choctaw Nation who moved to Indian
Territory prior to the Civil War and had a large plantation near
Doaksville in what is now Choctaw County. Willis lived his life
out in Choctaw and Atoka Counties. It is believed that he died in
Atoka County, as that is where his unmarked grave is located.
Prior to the Civil War, Willis and his wife, Minerva, were sent
by their owner to work at the Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding
school located about ten miles northwest of Fort Towson just west
of the current town of Spencerville, where the superintendent, Reverend
Alexander Reid, heard them singing. In 1871, Reid was at a performance
of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee,
and thought the Willis’ songs were better than those of the
Jubilee Singers. He transcribed the songs and passed them along
to the group which introduced them to the world, performing them
around the United States and Europe.
Willis supposedly received inspiration for “Swing Low, Sweet
Chariot” from the Red River, which reminded him of the Jordan
River and of the Prophet Elijah being taken to heaven by a chariot.
At that time, the Red River divided Indian Territory from Texas,
which belonged to Mexico.
In the last century, the spiritual has continued to grow in popularity.
The tune has been recorded by such
greats as Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller,
Gene Autry, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Stevie
Wonder, Elvis Presley and Eric Clapton. The spiritual has also been
a theme song for English Rugby players and fans for several decades.
Willis had many other famous spirituals including Steal Away to
Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I’m a Rolling, and Roll Jordan
Roll among others.
Assistant Secretary of the Oklahoma State Senate Currie Ballard
is a descendent of Wallis and Minerva Willis. Ballard’s ancestors
were Choctaw Freedmen in Oklahoma. His grandmother, aunt and mother
all grew up in the state. His was the first generation of their
family that grew up outside of Oklahoma. Ballard said he was touched
by the support from the Senate and others around the state to make
the beautiful spiritual the state’s official gospel song.
“As a historian, I’ve found that so many Oklahomans
and others around the world and country have sang this spiritual
all their lives and never realized it came from Oklahoma so my heart
rejoices that this will bring positive light to our state and wonderful
citizens like Wallis,” said Ballard. “Personally, my
family is so touched and thrilled that Wallis’ song will forever
be a permanent part of Oklahoma history. Unfortunately, all of my
older family has passed away and won’t get to witness this.
I do have a cousin that grew up with my mother in Muskogee that
will be floating on a cloud, and I know there are angels that will
celebrating in heaven when this becomes official.”
For more information contact:
Sen. Eason McIntyre: (405) 521-5598