Wed 18 Nov 2009
If a segment of Connections had been devoted to popular culture, it could not have found a better example than this story, which begins on stage and ends in soccer.
For those of you who don’t remember Connections, which was first aired on Public Television in 1979, the series was hosted by the British science-historian James Burke. His premise was that developments in one area of science and technology often lead to developments in seemingly unrelated areas.
Burke, for example, once showed how improved trade in the ancient world led to the understanding of magnetism during the 16th century, which in turn led to the discovery of electricity in the 17th century and ultimately the development of radar and nuclear weapons in the 20th century.
The connections now fascinating me are far less significant than Burke’s but at least as convoluted — and probably more fun.
To demonstrate my series of connections, I’m including several video links, probably too many to watch to conclusion.
In 1909, a Hungarian named Ferenc Molnár (right) wrote a grim play called Liliom about an out-of-work carousel barker who unsuccessfully turns to crime and then kills himself, causing great suffering for his wife and unborn daughter.
In the end, he is consigned to Hell.
Bizarrely, two producers during World War II asked Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (left) to turn the play into a Broadway musical.
Although skeptical, Rodgers and Hammerstein agreed to take on the project but relocated the story from Budapest to a New England fishing village and gave it a happier ending.
The result was Carousel, which opened in 1945. Time magazine would later call it the best musical of the 20th century.
In 1956, Carousel was made into a film starring Gordon MacRae as Billy the barker and Shirley Jones as his wife Julie.
The musical contained several memorable songs, the most powerful of which is You’ll Never Walk Alone. Julie’s aunt sings it to her when Billy dies, and the song is reprised in the finale during his daughter Louise’s graduation from high school.
In the final scene, Billy has returned to earth, having been told he can’t enter heaven until he salves the pain he caused Julie and Louise. Louise in particular has been shunned by other villagers because of her father’s misdeeds, leaving her isolated during graduation.
Although invisible to others, Billy appears to Louise during the ceremonies and boosts her self-confidence, which leads Louise and Julie to take part in singing You’ll Never Walk Alone:
“When you walk through a storm/ Hold your head up high/ And don’t be afraid of the dark./ At the end of the storm/ Is a golden sky/ And the sweet silver song of a lark.
“Walk on through the wind,/ Walk on through the rain,/ Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown./ Walk on, walk on/ With hope in your heart/ And you’ll never walk alone,/ You’ll never walk alone.”
Because of the song’s inspirational message and its being sung during the musical’s graduation scene, schools throughout the United States soon began singing it at graduation.
Singers from Frank Sinatra, to Doris Day, to Elvis Presley recorded it. One of the most-striking, and perhaps surprising, renditions comes from Manila where it is performed by the beautiful Filipina singer Kyla (left).
But the rendition that gave You’ll Never Walk Alone a connection no one could have foreseen came from Liverpool, England, where a band called Gerry and the Pacemakers recorded it in 1963. Their version immediately topped the British pop music charts.
Today Gerry Marsden (right) and the Pacemakers are remembered, if at all, in the United States for their 1965 hit Ferry Cross the Mersey.
Nonetheless, the group was right behind their fellow Liverpudlians, the Beatles, in leading the British Invasion of American pop music after 1964.
Now here is where a bit of sociology comes into play. Liverpool is ethnically diverse and in the early 1960s had enough nightspots to employ hundreds of bands.
Because the city is a major port on the Mersey Estuary, the style of music played by the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and other Liverpudlian bands came to be known as Merseybeat.
However, Liverpool was also an industrial city in decline (left), and in the early 1960s, the main thing its popular culture had going besides music was its professional soccer team (or football club, as they say in other parts of the world).
In 1959, a working-class manager named Bill Shankly had taken over the club when it was at the bottom of the English Football Association’s second division and its facilities were decrepit. By the end of six years under Shankly, who was admired by fans and players alike, the Liverpool Football Club was the best in England.
With the formerly forlorn football club generating so much pride and expectation among Liverpudlians, it was perhaps appropriate You’ll Never Walk Alone became the “Liverpool Anthem” for the fans. Not just any version, of course, but specifically the Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Merseybeat rendition.**
Before every match, a Gerry and the Pacemakers’ recording of You’ll Never Walk Alone is played on the stadium PA system while Liverpool fans by the tens of thousands sing along and wave banners.
The anthem so impressed fans elsewhere that soon other football clubs adopted You’ll Never Walk Alone as their anthem too. Again, not just any version but specifically the Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Merseybeat version.
Before long, there were matches where the fans of opposing teams were singing the same anthem in unison.
In time, the song’s popularity as a football anthem spread to clubs in the non-English-speaking world. Belgian football fans from Brugge now struggle to sing along in English with Gerry and the Pacemakers. Fans of Tokyo’s football club sing a pretty fair approximation.
How have Liverpool fans reacted? One Liverpudlian posted a complaint on a Japanese video: “Why does every team steal our song? It’s ours, no argument. Gerry and the Pacemakers, who sung it originally, are from Liverpool, and they said in an interview they made it for Bill Shankly.”
Of course, Gerry and the Pacemakers — like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Kyla, and hundreds of school choirs — took the song from Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein who, in turn, got the story from Liliom by Frenec Molinár.
All the same, it is intriguing how a Merseybeat band in recording a song from a 1945 Broadway musical — based on a 1909 play — ended up creating a football anthem that today is sung around the world.