Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: ‘Swing low’ and a bottled moment

Mar. 02, 2013 @ 08:38 PM

I wonder if there’s much to the notion of your life flashing before your eyes?

Not just the moments permanently planted there, like childbirth and weddings and graduations and even funerals, but all those other moments we wish we could bottle.

Religion is one of my beats here at the newspaper, you know, and I see worship in so many ways. I see God in so many ways lived through the lives of folks here in Durham. I see a lot of grief, too, as well as joy.

On Thursday night, there was a moment I wished I could bottle and save for later. It happened, as with many of life’s impactful times, with music. I covered the 21st Annual Vigil Against Violence. You can read about it in last Friday’s paper. What I didn’t include in the story was a bottle-worthy moment for myself, and perhaps others who also attended.

It came after the Southern High School Chorus sang, after the reading of the names and the ringing of the bell. After the weight of the matter settled in. It was time for the people in the pews to sing. It’s a song that children learn in Sunday school but isn’t often chosen for a Sunday hymn. It’s a song that, no matter what your vocal strength or desire, stirs something in you. It is about life and death. It is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the African American spiritual credited to “Uncle Wallace” Willis.

We stood. We sang. Tentative at first, with no choir or piano to lead us. Just the familiar words of the song.

“I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, coming for to carry me home?”

The church at the corner of East Main and Driver streets is in poverty-stricken Northeast Central Durham. The streets are pretty dark. A light in the sanctuary was out. The building is aged but sturdy. The wooden pews and floors creaked a little.

“A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”

I’m not a singer who belts out songs in public. I don’t think the rest of the people there that night were, either.

“Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down, coming for to carry me home. But still my soul feels heavenly bound. Coming for to carry me home.”

I can’t remember when I learned this song. Maybe as a kid in Georgia. But when I sing it to myself I do it in a low, deep voice. In the car on the way home Thursday night, I belted it out. But in that church, covering that story, I was reserved. Inside my mind, I was trying to bottle that song – those creaks of the wood, those quiet voices that strengthened as they joined together, and that binding feeling of a shared moment.

“Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.”

A teenager played “Taps” on the trumpet at the end of the service. That’s a whole other column.


Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at: dvaughan@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6563.