Sing when you’re winning and especially when you’re not

I was watching West Ham against Birmingham City and thinking, oh I do hope one if not both of them comes up next season, not because of the quality of their play, which is adequate, but the quality of the singing. West Ham fans sing "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", while Birmingham belt out "Keep Right on to the End of the Road" - each song about 100 years old. Amazing really, for this tradition to have lasted.

“Bubbles", first heard in a Broadway show in 1918, became popular in the UK in the 1920s. It got taken up by West Ham when a new young West Ham player came on the pitch with a mass of curly blond hair who looked like the boy in Millais's portrait Bubbles.

“Keep Right on" was written and sung by Harry Lauder after the death of his son in the First World War. Not sure why Birmingham took it up - did they have Scottish players or connections? - but the sentiment does suit football supporting.

The best-known crowd song is Liverpool's "You'll Never Walk Alone", which dates from 1945 and was then sung by Gerry and the Pacemakers in the 1960s. Now it's sung by many other clubs across Europe.

Where else today do you hear such communal singing ? Choirs are not the same thing, though Gareth Malone shows how popular they still are. Choirs are structured, trained, while football crowds are essentially amateur and spontaneous.

I have clear memories as a lad of going past pubs and hearing them singing their little hearts out. When I said this to my wife, she said her memory of pubs was of the fighting. She did come from a rough area. Married well, though. Melvyn Bragg backed me up. His dad ran the Black-a-Moor pub in Wigton and he remembers a special room called the Singing Room, complete with piano.

Oh, it was all singing, in the good old days - messenger and telegraph boys did it while cycling along. At school, coming back on the coach, having got stuffed 50-0 by Newcastle Royal Grammar's third XV, we sang all the way home. At Durham, in drunken college events, we sang songs and threw things. Does that still happen? Hope so.

Soldiers, in both wars, sang when marching to Tipperary or wherever, and the folks back home echoed the same choruses when having a knees-up or working in munition factories. Do today's soldiers sing? Do they march any more? Not heard of that happening in Afghanistan. What they seem to do in current wars is creep along in small groups, or lie down in the back of trucks, in silence. Singing lustily would mean getting your head blown off.

Listen up

But I think probably the main reason for the decline of communal singing is that songs are not meant to be sung any more. People did sing Beatles songs, out loud, in gatherings and of course "Yellow Submarine" has made it into the European terraces, but since the 1970s, songs are more for listening to, not for joining in. Hard to do so anyway. Popular music has split, into about 20 different varieties, so we don't all know the same songs anyway.

Music now is for listening to, dancing to and watching, not for singing along to. How can you, when it has been technologically created, with synthesisers and effects?

The only time I ever hear ordinary folks singing along in the street are at our local bus stops. We have two girls' schools nearby - Parliament Hill and La Sainte Union - and they are so thrilled to be out of school that three or four link arms while waiting for the bus and sing along to . . . well it sounds rubbish to me, but they seem to know all the words and are really enjoying themselves. In Cockermouth Main Street, when we are up there, I hear girls coming down the hill from Cockermouth School, singing away. Do boys sing ? Only at football games.

I suggest that football grounds are the only places left where you will regularly hear genuine communal singing. So well done West Ham and Birmingham fans for keeping their old songs alive. All together now . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain