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Perhaps the most widely known spiritual of its kind, “Swing Low” was inspired by the Biblical story of the Prophet Elijah being delivered to heaven in a chariot of fire. As with countless other spirituals, it was only natural for those who heard it to draw parallels to the experiences of slaves, and a resolute hope that a better life was on the horizon.
The song is credited to Wallace Willis, a slave who worked in the cotton fields of Oklahoma in the mid-1800s, and its global journey truly began when it was performed and first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Often called the “Black National Anthem,” this 121-year-old hymn remains as vital as ever in the 21st century. It was first written as a poem by Johnson in 1900, and five years later, his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, set its painstaking words to a stirring melody. “Lift” is a message of resilience, reverence and courage, calling for voices to join together in the “harmonies of liberty,” and to “march on till victory is won.”
First published in 1901, the gospel music composition by the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia crossed over from the church to protests, becoming a key anthem of the civil rights movement. “We Shall Overcome” was sung by over 50,000 attendees at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. It has been performed and re-written by numerous artists and remains a staple for political movements.