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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.”