NOTES ON EARLY SOCCER CHANTS AND SONGS

04Jun12

Regular readers of Soccer History Magazine will be aware that we have been running a series of articles over some time covering singing and songs that have been popular at matches over the years. This article is intended as the start of a work in progress on football songs and chants in the period to 1915. It is unlikely to appear in Soccer History in this form as I am still uncovering new information which will add to my understanding of the subject and enable me to develop my thoughts.

The published information on songs and chants during this period is rather sparse. Tony Mason devotes a chapter to ‘The Crowd’ in his defining work on the social history of football in the years to 1914, Association Football & English Society, 1863-1915. However, although he concludes that singing was one of several forms of ‘co-operative cultural effort’ used by fans to pass the time before the kick-off at big matches the only specific reference is to the fact that supporters of Blackburn Rovers sang a song with the refrain “We’ve won the cup before – many a time” prior to the 1891 Cup Final tie against Notts County.

Dave Russell (Football and the English, A social history of association football in England, 1863-1915) provides further references, notably relating to Bradford City fans during the club’s FA Cup run of 1911 recording that a rendition of Harry Lauder’s ‘I Love a Lassie’ was sung on at least one occasion. Brian & William Fellows have written of the singing of the Pompey Chimes at both Royal Artillery and Portsmouth FC matches at the turn of the twentieth century (http://familyfellows.com/pompey-songs-book.htm) , while the most recent issue of Soccer History includes an article by Dave Juson on the Southampton ‘whisper’ of the same period. Thanks to correspondence from Bob Gilchrist we also know that supporters of Edinburgh club Hibernians had their own version of the whisper in the late 1880s.

What might be termed the vocal output of fans in the period can be subdivided into three broad types: war cries, chants and songs and I shall look at each in turn.

War cries are perhaps not as far removed from modern football as first thoughts might indicate – think, for example, of the crescendo of noise that greats the away goalkeeper when he takes up his position in front of the home fans or runs up to take a goal kick. We now have three offerings of war cries, all in the period to the turn of the century. Bob Gilchrist has provided me with a reference in the Scottish sporting press relating to the celebrations that ensued after Hibernians’ defeat of Dumbarton in the Scottish Cup final of 1887: “Just as the company were about to leave the hall someone proposed that before parting they should give the ‘Hibs’ the ‘Easter Road Whisper’ a demoniacal ear-splitting yell instantly followed, compared with which the famous war cry of the Cherokees was mildness itself.” Southampton, too, had a ‘whisper’ of their own (one assumes the word whisper is ironic in both cases and was in fact a roar) as Dave Juson has outlined in his article in issue 29 of Soccer History. The noise, likened to “the gaggling of so many geese,” first appeared around 1897 and remained in use until after the First World War. Initially recorded as “Hi! Hi! Hi!” the war cry seems to have metamorphosed into ““Yi! Yi! Yi!” very quickly (although this may just be a more accurate description of the sound). The final war cry is that of Third Lanark and provided one of that club’s nicknames, The Hi Hi. The origins of this are uncertain, however, the suggestion that this relates to an incident in the late 1890s (as appears on wikipedia) can easily be disproved.  A chant of “Hi! Hi! Hi!” was recorded in August 1894 when it was described as “the old war cry.”

The origins of these war cries might well be military, although in a sporting context the touring Maori rugby team of 1888-89 preceded matches with a haka or war cry which was widely reported in newspapers and might have inspired others to produce their own version. An earlier New Zealand rugby team touring Australia in 1884 had also employed a war cry.

Evidence on chants is even more sparse and I have only traced one from the pre-1914 period, albeit one which was long lasting and therefore is of some importance. Swansea Town fans were recorded as chanting “Give it to Ballie” in homage to Billy Ball, one of the club’s first stars. A similar chant was also noted at Lincoln City as “Give it to Dinny” (Billy Dinsdale, centre forward 1926-1929 and 1930-31) and at Manchester United as “Give it to Joe” (Joe Spence, centre forward 1919-1933). This suggests a life span throughout the 1920s, at least.

The evidence for singing songs is wider and these can be effectively divided into two groups – specific football/club songs and songs which were not specific to football – music hall or songs or songs with traditional local links.

The first specific football song (although probably one for use in the music hall rather than sung by fans at matches) is considered to be James Curran’s ‘The Dooley Fitba’ Club’ from the 1880s, a song which has since become widely known under its adapted title of ‘Fitba’ Crazy’ and which remained popular as a comic/children’s song into the 1960s and 1970s. This was followed by ‘On the ball City’ which is almost certainly the first song to be used as a club song. The exact origins of this are unclear but it seems to have been sung amongst teams in the Norwich area in the 1890s and adopted by Norwich City at or soon after the club’s formation in 1902. In 1913 a song entitled ‘The Swans’ War Song’ was published for Swansea Town. Whether it was ever sung at matches is unclear although a refrain including the lines “It’s in ! (ha! ha!) we grin (ha! ha!) we make an awful din as we all shout hurrah!” suggests this may be a possibility. It has been said that the origins of such club songs lie in the English public school system and while this may well be the case with the Norwich song (the roots of Norwich City were a group of schoolteachers) the case at Swansea seems to have greater links with the (working class) music hall. It is worth noting that the lyrics of the Swansea song were written to the tune of a popular music hall song, ‘Here comes the chocolate major.’ In November 1920, admittedly slightly beyond the period we are looking at, a club song was penned for Port Vale; entitled ‘The Port Vale War Cry’ it is also believed to have had links with the music hall.

The second category of song is the popular song sung either on a regular basis or as a one-off. The ‘Pompey Chimes’ is perhaps the best known of these, although whether it constitutes the football song with “the longest history of all,” as has been claimed, is a very debatable point. The Pompey Chimes is, of course, a ditty linked to the town of Portsmouth and not specific to football, indeed there is at least one recorded case of it being sung by spectators at a Hampshire cricket match. In a football context the Chimes were sung by fans of Royal Artillery FC in the late 1890s and the song was then adopted by supporters of Portsmouth FC when the club began playing in the 1899-1900 season. Elsewhere, what were assumed to be Llanelli-based supporters of Swansea Town were certainly singing ‘Sospan Fach’ at the Swans’ matches in the 1914-15 season. These more or less constitute regular songs, there was also some on-off singing. As previously noted, there was singing before the 1891 FA Cup final while the Black Country chainmaker and folk singer George Dunn recalled being told that at the 1899 final fans of Sheffield United were humming ‘The Dead March’ while their counterparts from Derby County sang ‘The Rowdy Dowdy Boys,’ a music hall drinking song. Music hall songs were also sung by Bradford City fans in their FA Cup run of 1910-11 as noted above.

The above notes summarise my knowledge of the subject of singing and chanting at matches in the period to the end of the 1914-15 season. They are very much a work in progress and I would welcome comments, suggestions and further references on the subject which can be sent to me at editor@soccer-history.co.uk. Information on the subject is often well hidden in the occasional sentence in match reports but the more information that emerges the better picture we will have. What further evidence is there of war cries, chants and the singing of songs at matches? Was there a specific link with FA Cup ties or big matches as opposed to the ordinary run-of -the-mill game? Were these spontaneous events or did club directors/committees encourage singing and chanting as a way of inspiring the team? These are just some of the questions I am looking to answer.

Some sources:

Books

Tony Mason, Association Football & English Society, 1863-1915 (Harvester Press, 1980)

Dave Russell, Football and the English, A social history of association football in England, 1863-1915 (Carnegie Publishing, 1997)

Articles

Ian Nannestad, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’: Singing by Swansea Town fans in the 1920s (Soccer History, issue 23)

Dave Juson, ‘Yi, Yi, Yi’: The first football chant? (Soccer History, issue 29)

Newspaper Articles

Fitba Crazy: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/2006/03/31/fitba-crazy-after-all-these-years-86908-16884643/

Swansea City song: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2012/06/03/swansea-city-s-first-football-song-it-s-in-we-grin-we-make-an-awful-din-91466-31101395/

Website

Pompey Song Book: http://familyfellows.com/pompey-songs-book.htm

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