Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Rouse)

From Wind Repertory Project
Steve Rouse

Steve Rouse

General Info

Year: 2001
Duration: c. 3:55
Difficulty: III (see Ratings for explanation)
Publisher: Manhattan Beach Music
Cost: Score and Parts - $110.00   |   Score Only - $15.00


Full Score
C Piccolo
Flute I-II
B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II-III
B-flat Bass Clarinet
E-flat Contra Alto Clarinet
E-flat Alto Saxophone I-II
B-flat Tenor Saxophone
E-flat Baritone Saxophone
B-flat Trumpet I-II-III
Horn in F I-II
Trombone I-II-III
Percussion I-II-III:

  • Bass Drum
  • Chimes
  • Crash Cymbal
  • Glockenspiel
  • Suspended Cymbal
  • Triangle
  • Vibraphone


None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

Acclaimed international composer Steve Rouse offers this warm and elegant setting of the beloved Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to the concert band stage. This sophisticated arrangement offers much in the way of harmonic and melodic elements to appeal to discerning directors. The peaceful, relaxed nature of the work makes a splendid choice for an expressive selection for contest use.

- Program Note from publisher

In the early 1870s my great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and later to Mississippi, where in 1887 his daughter, Sophie, was born. My grandmother grew up listening to hymns, spirituals, and popular songs performed by local musicians on the front porch of their home in the small town of Escatawpa, Mississippi. When I was a child my grandmother often sang to me, usually hymns and popular songs from her own childhood. I remember first hearing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot sung to me by her.

Many songs that she heard were performed by a singing group of African-American friends of her father. These were men who worked at the local sawmill, which he managed. Her older brother's brass band also was a source of the music she heard. This was a time when recorded music was uncommon, and live performances were how most people experienced music.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was popular in the hymnbooks of the Southern Baptist churches of the deep South, the religious tradition in which I was raised. Like many other spirituals, it was still in the air during the 1950s and 1960s of my youth. I grew up playing and singing music in ensembles as diverse as barbershop quartets and rhythm-and-blues groups, and I came to understand through personal experience the influence of spirituals on American popular music at the midpoint of the 20th Century, and well beyond.

In May 2000, Dr. Eric Becher, former director of the University of Louisville Concert Band, asked me to write, in his words, "a slow, beautiful work in the grade 3 range." When my publisher suggested that I make an arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, I realized that this spiritual might be a perfect fit for Dr. Becher's request.

When I think of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, what I find most moving and extraordinary is the blend of spirit and earth. By spirit I mean the song's deep and powerful message of hope. By earth I mean the visceral power of the music -- its specific tones and rhythms that resonate within us. Whether the song is performed very slowly or at a brisk pace, its message is never diluted. It only shines in a different light.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is considered to be a code song or coded song, and is one of a handful of spirituals that refer directly to the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor underground, but was instead a loose and mysterious web of people and places serving the common goal of helping those bound by slavery to escape. Those fleeing slavery often moved northward from hiding place to hiding place under cover of darkness and disguise.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was a favorite spiritual of Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), who escaped from slavery in 1849 and is widely considered to be the most famous leader of the Underground Railroad, the Moses of those seeking freedom from slavery. In the 1850s she made many rescue trips into Maryland to help about 300 slaves escape to freedom.

Most of the code words in the spirituals refer to escape from slavery; the code words were used to hide the underlying, secret meaning of the lyrics. Coded songs were a way for slaves to share the dream of freedom openly with one another, drawing inspiration and hope from the texts. Without understanding the code, the lyrics appeared to have very different, nonthreatening meanings to the slaveholders. In another interpretation of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, the lyrics are thought to be a coded reference to the southern Ohio town of Ripley, one of the earliest and busiest "stations" or "depots" of the Underground Railroad. Ripley was the home of John Parker (1827-1900), an abolitionist, former slave, and successful industrialist. John Parker was also a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. To reach the town of Ripley, which sits atop a hill by the Ohio River, fugitive slaves had to wait for help coming from the hill. This scene corresponds to the lyrics that refer to a "band of angels coming across the Jordan River to carry me home."

In my arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, I have tried to capture the fervent, devotional character of the spiritual while coloring this more religious expression with an earthiness. In my version, this earthiness is represented by harmonies that some might consider jazz-like. I wanted to create a rich harmonic web that mingled the simple and the sophisticated, without straying too far from the basic impulse of the original song. At times the piece is very simple and pure in heart, and at other times the harmonies become luxurious, with expression that cannot be contained or held back.

- Program Note by composer


State Ratings

  • Texas: III. Complete


To submit a performance please join The Wind Repertory Project

  • Savannah (Ga.) Wind Symphony (John Madden, conductor) - 5 November 2023
  • Malone University (Canton, Ohio) (Jason Wyse, conductor) - 25 April 2023
  • West Virginia University (Morgantown) Symphonic Band (Cheldon R. Williams, conductor) - 28 September 2022
  • University of Wyoming (Laramie) Community Band (Robert Belser, conductor) - 8 November 2021
  • University of Louisville (Ky.) Symphonic Band (Amy Acklin, conductor) - 30 September 2021
  • Prairie Wind Ensemble (East Peoria, Ill.) (Randy Greenwell, conductor) – 19 March 2020
  • La Sierra University (Riverside, Calif.) Wind Ensemble (Giovanni Santos, conductor) – 10 November 2018
  • University Wind Ensemble of Concordia University (Seward, Neb.) (Andrew Schultz, conductor) – 25 March 2018
  • Illinois State University (Normal) Symphonic Winds (Zachary Taylor, conductor) – 16 February 2018
  • University of Texas (Austin) Orange Concert Band (Ryan Kelly, conductor) – 24 April 2017
  • California State University, Fresno, Symphonic Band (Jose Vargas, conductor) - 23 March 2014 (35th Sutherland Wind Festival, Fresno, Calif.)
  • Louisville (Ky.) Concert Band (Frederick Speck, conductor) - 19 December 2013 (2013 Midwest Clinic)
  • North West Wind Ensemble (Sydney, Aus.) (James Brice, conductor) - 2013
  • Male High School (Louisville, Ky.) Symphonic Band (Nan Moore, conductor) – 20 December 2001 (2001 Midwest Clinic)

Works for Winds by This Composer