Once an American Broadway tune but now perhaps better known as the club anthem of West Ham United, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" holds a top spot in the English Premier League as one of its most recognisable anthems. But how did a Broadway musical number come to be find it’s home across the Atlantic amongst chanters in the east end terraces?
With a music score by John Kellette, and lyrics by James Brockman, James Kendis and Nat Vincent under the pseudonym ‘Jaan Kenbrovin’, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” first made its debut in the Broadway musical The Passing Show of 1918. From there, it was adopted as a waltz number by singers and bands in the 1920s across the US. Eventually the song’s popularity transferred abroad to English shores and became a hit in British music halls and theatres during the early 1920s.
Ben Selvin's Novelty Orchestra - I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles (1919)
Like any great story, retellings differ on the provenance of how West Ham fans came to adopt "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles". Perhaps the most curious and arguably charming account involves the tale of a curly haired school boy and a soap advertisement of all things. West Ham folklore recounts the anecdote of young footballer by the name of Billy J. "Bubbles" Murray who played for Park School in east London and West Ham's schoolboys team. Billy it was said bore an uncanny resemblance to the boy in the “Bubbles” painting by Millais, which would go on to be used by the Pears soap commercial. As supposed doppelganger, Billy earned the moniker ‘Bubbles’, who if the story is to be believed, captured the West Hams fan’s imagination and consequently his nickname inspiring the adoption of Blowing Blows as an ode.
School portrait of Billy J. "Bubbles"
Pears soap advertisement
However in certain other versions the story goes that Billy’s headmaster Cornelis Beal would sing his own version of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", when his student school players performed well. In a further twist to the tale, Beal was a friend of West Ham future manager Charlie Paynter. Beal’s enthusiasm for Blowing Bubbles supposedly rubbed off on Paynter who would solicit the ground’s band to play the song, which in turn encouraged and popularised the anthem amongst fans.
An alternative narrative to the the aforementioned story suggests a more prosaic version of events. Which contrary to popular wisdom that West Ham were the first club to stake claim to the chant argues that it was actually Swansea City instead who instead first appropriated the chant. And that it wasn't until during a game between the two sides that West Ham fans first encountered 'Bubbles'. The Hammers were supposedly so impressed by the tune that they decided to adopt the song for themselves.
The final and perhaps most plausible of events claims that 'Bubbles' was only heard with real consistency at the Boleyn Ground during the course of World War 2. The tune documented as inspiring and raising spirits when sung in shelters and later in football grounds. Its popularity forever immortalised during this time by the forces sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn, who’d sing the ballad to the Allied Forces, cementing the song's iconic war time status.
Vera Lynn - I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles (Telegrams Video)
No one conclusive explanation exists of the how the song’s adoption really took place and an accurate account of how the story really played out may never truly be known. However, whichever version you may believe what does remain true today is the songs distinctive association with West Ham and its crowd pleasing ability to bring together its supporters. A song which talks of ephemeral bubbles blown in the air and fortunes forever hiding as synonymous with its resilient supporters who have had, and continue to weather mixed sporting fortunes.
Beyond Hammers fans, the song also has a timeless universal appeal, one which speaks to a fan’s experience of chasing the elusive dream of sporting glory. Glory which remains tantalisingly beyond reach, with teams supported who can never quite fulfil the dreams and ambitions of its followers. Given West Ham’s recent challenges, the song typifies a wry nod to the East of London where its dreamers continue to dream, even when dreaming sometimes against the odds. Those who sing ‘Blowing Bubbles’ continue to do so with a sense of self deprecating humour, underscored with a measure of irony and an everlasting sprinkling of eternal optimism.
While your here, catch our latest Episode of The Refrain, a musical ode to the Hammer's tune: