I’ve just come back from the cinema. There’s a new art film showing and I’m in it. It’s a documentary about You’ll Never Walk Alone, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical classic which made its way from Broadway through to the British charts through to the football stadiums of Europe.
My role is a face in the crowd at one of the Dortmund games. A cast of thousands you might say, although there are plenty of empty seats in the house this evening. It’s a half past five showing: just late enough to avoid the indignity of being classed as a matinée but without interfering with the running times of Pirates of the Carribean. This is the one and only screening in our town.
If films were football teams then this one would off to a bad start because it fails to silence the crowd: half a dozen elderly ladies chattering and chewing loudly on popcorn. Their conversation halts briefly when the curtains part and again when they close but otherwise their indifference is total. They are not missing much.
104 minutes later and it’s given the public what they want. The anthropologists and the culture vultures will be delighted, the football lovers might feel like they’ve been cut up and put in a glass jar or stretched out onto microscope slides. Six out of ten. I knew the story before I went in and to be honest, I can think of better ones.
Traditional wisdom has it that YNWA was written for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, a Broadway classic of the 1940s. From there it was transported to the British hit parade courtesy of Gerry and the Pacemakers, adopted by the fans of Liverpool FC and from there it has become an anthem for Borussia Dortmund, Glasgow Celtic, Feyenoord Rotterdam, Club Bruges and many, many other clubs across Europe.
The film goes one layer deeper and tells of the theatre play behind the musical. Its original author was Ferenc Molnár, a Hungarian who fled to the US in 1941, taking Liliom, his masterpiece, with him. There it was put into song.
Hungary to New York to Liverpool to Dortmund. It’s an interesting tale but I can think of two songs whose stories are far more fascinating.
The first is the Lied der Deutschen, better known to most non-Germans as “Deutschland Über Alles”. Just like YNWA, it has its origins in central Europe: Croatia to be precise. Croatia, like Hungary was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so the first lyrics were written not for Germans but for the Emperor of Austria.
It fell to the splendidly named August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben to pen the current version for a proto-German audience.
It was intended as a plea for unity back in post-Napoleonic era when Germany was little more than a loose confederation of tiny states. By the time they formally united in 1871 the song was popular among soldiers: catchy, patriotic and easy to remember.
Unfortunately the German Empire already had a national anthem which we’ll get to later. And so Lied der Deutschen had to wait until 1919 before the Weimar Republic established it as Germany’s official hymn.
As a song, it’s surrounded by myth and controversy but it’s upbeat, easy to sing and I like it very much. I’m often asked if I know the words and I always answer yes: the three official verses plus the one I made up myself.
I am joking of course and as humour goes this is risqué. The first myth about the Lied der Deutschen is that it is right wing. Many Germans will tell you that two of the three verses are banned by law but none of this is true. The reason why the verses are never sung — and the reason why the third verse only is the official national anthem — is that the rest of it is hopelessly out of date:
Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang
“German women, German faith, German wine and German song” sounds harmless enough but I somehow can’t imagine Angela Merkel singing it during one of her beer hall speeches. Actually I can but it’s not an attractive thought. The first verse is even more problematic:
Von der Maas bis an die Memel,
Von der Etsch bis an den Belt
From the Maas to the Memel, from the Etsch to the Belt. Four rivers which are now a long way outside Germany’s current borders.
That leaves us with the third verse:
Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Für das deutsche Vaterland!
“Unity and law and freedom for the German fatherland.” Perfect for a modern democracy. In actual fact, the line “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” does not appear in the official version. Nor did Hoffmann von Fallersleben ever intend these words to be a war cry. This is the third of the myths about what I think is a wonderful song.
My second pick for a song with a story might seem more familiar. God Save The Queen might not be the most melodic of tunes but it is royalty among anthems. Only the Dutch and the Spanish ones are older. It’s actual origins are unknown but, like its German cousin it is not without controversy. It too has a “forbidden verse”:
Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
May he sedition hush,
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King.
Added in 1745 during the Highland rebellion and subtracted soon after. In fairness, this has never been part of the official British anthem and so anyone who tells you that the song has not three verses but four is a troublemaker. Like the German anthem it is a victim of myth.
Quite a lot of people went to the trouble of making up their own verses back then; it seems to have been quite a favourite in the pubs of London. Remarkably, we know neither the original author nor the composer of the song.
None of which is to its discredit. Its popularity was unprecedented and its fame spread throughout the world. The Americans have the song My Country Tis Of Thee which shares the same tune, and then of course there’s the Commonwealth. But the melody has also become something of a song for Europe.
First up, there’s Liechtenstein. I was once in Liechtenstein for a football match against Scotland where they asked the Scottish fans not to boo when they sang Oben am jungen Rhein. Its tune is very familiar to Scottish ears and not always pleasing. On this occasion we cheered. It is their anthem after all. When England play there, they play the tune twice, once for each team.
Norway’s king has his own version and there are also a couple of countries where it has fallen out of use. Up until 1833 Russians sang “God save the Tsar” to a very familiar tune and then there was Heil dir im Siegerkranz. “Hail to thee in the wreath of victory”. From 1871 until 1919 this was the anthem of the German Empire.
I doubt whether too many English football fans know that their anthem was once also the German one, or whether they care when they’re doing the pom-pom pom-pom bit in the middle, but either way they shouldn’t be worried. It’s a British creation which has been a hit around the world — and there a lot of those to choose from.
But it does make me wonder about those fabled Christmas truce football matches during the early years of World War One. Just what did the British and German players sing when they lined up before the kickoff?
The British version? The German version? One tune, two sets of lyrics? Both versions at the same time?
Or maybe, just maybe they sang You’ll Never Walk Alone. It is the national anthem for football after all.