Keep Right On to the End of the Road.
For all Blues fans on the terraces of St.Andrew’s today, belting out the strains to “Keep Right On to the End of the Road” till your larynx is red raw comes with the territory. It's something you've always sung since you were old enough to squeeze through (or under) the turnstile, as did your father and quite probably even his father before him, it's what you were put on this earth to do!
For more than 60 years Blues fans have proudly sung KRO during the good times and the bad, but has it ever occurred to you just WHY we sing it? What are the song’s actual origins and just how did we adopt this rousing rendition as our famous football anthem? Eric Partridge explains how it all came about...
It all began in Edinburgh in 1870 when Henry (Harry) Lauder, the eldest of eight children, was born into poverty. When he was just 12 years old, the family was orphaned, leaving Harry no option but to work in the local flax mill to make ends meet.
In his early teens he was forced to endure the gruelling conditions of the coal mine which is where he began singing to bolster his spirits. Such was his talent he was encouraged by his fellow miners to enter a local singing contest which led to him being invited to sing in small music halls. His rise on the vaudeville circuit was rapid, quickly establishing himself as a highly talented comedian, singer/songwriter to eventually become the highest paid entertainer of his day.
During World War 1 (1914-1918), Harry worked tirelessly to recruit performers and organise concert parties to entertain British troops serving overseas. In 1917, his own son Captain John C. Lauder was killed in action at the Somme. Harry later received a letter from a fellow serving officer who was in his son's company when he was tragically felled, describing him as a leader of 'great gallantry' and who, in his dying words, had ordered his troops to 'carry on'!
Harry was so emotionally affected by this correspondence that it inspired him to pen the words to what has since been adopted as Blues' own battle anthem, “Keep Right On to the End of the Road”.
Despite the death of his son, Harry continued to perform and raise awareness of the war effort always ending each of his wartime shows to the rousing strains of “Keep Right On...” and in the years that followed, the song became regarded as a Scottish classic. Harry trod the boards well into his 70's in music halls throughout the land and abroad but sadly, on 26th February 1950,aged 79, Sir Harry Lauder passed away, leaving behind a legacy of fine Scottish music and numerous films.
Almost six years later in January 1956, Sir Harry's memory was revived in the most unlikely of circumstances when on the way to Leyton Orient in the fourth round of the FA Cup, the Blues squad was in 'full voice' - a pre-match ritual instigated by team manager Arthur Turner to calm the nerves before a big game.
Blues legendary winger of the mid 1950’s Alex Govan recalled at the time "After beating Albion in the fifth round, we were drawn against the mighty Arsenal in the quarter final, not an easy prospect in those days either," said Govan who passed away in June 2016 aged 86. "We left our hotel at Hendon for the short journey to Highbury and as usual after just a few yards down the road we were lifting the roof off the coach!
I remember singing a couple of Scottish favourites as my 'party piece', one of which was “Keep Right On to the End of the Road”.” What Alex couldn't possibly have realised at the time is how such a simple, random choice of song would soon be immortalised by generations of Blues fans to this day.
"The skipper, Len Boyd, was belting out 'Any Old Iron' for the umpteenth time when the gaffer bellowed up the coach, 'Let's have one from Scotland, Alex'. I duly obliged with “Keep Right On to the End of the Road” once again. This time some of the other lads joined in the chorus and one by one they quickly caught onto the words, we sang it again and again until the entire coach was rocking as we pulled up outside Highbury!
"I remember the coach was one of the older types which had wind down windows alongside the seats. It was a warm day so all the lads had their windows down and with the strains of “Keep Right On..” going at full belt, the Blues fans who always congregated outside the ground to welcome us to away games could hear us coming several streets away! They had picked up on the words too and were all singing it as we filed off the coach.
"We won 4-0 on the day, so it must have worked," the free-scoring winger recalled a few years after Blues’ Wembley journey. The rest, as they say is history!"
After the next round, Blues’ boss Arthur Turner, not known for displaying his emotions, admitted he was greatly moved by the fans' reception and felt that the passion created by the rendition of such a powerful song both before and during the game played a major part in overcoming Arsenal 3-1 in their own backyard to reach the semi-final against Sunderland at Hillsborough. Even more Blues fans had learned the words by this time and inspired a rampant Blues to a one-sided 3-0 victory over the Black Cats and a place in at Wembley for the first time since 1931. At the final itself on 5th May, “Keep Right On” was even included in the community singing schedule, a pre-match tradition of the time, but for balance "She's a lassie from Lancashire" was also sung in deference to Blues’ opponents that day Manchester City.
Despite the noise from the Birmingham end encouraging Messrs Boyd, Brown and Govan with regular renditions of Sir Harry Lauder’s famous lyrics throughout the final, it failed to lift the favourites on this occasion and the Cup travelled back to Manchester after the 3-1 defeat.
Govan, a Glaswegian by birth, had signed for Birmingham from Plymouth Argyle in June 1953 for a fee of £6,500 and the promise of a house. He scored on his debut and finished that season with eight goals to his credit. The combination of the prolific Eddy Brown, regular top scorer Peter Murphy - a Division One title-winner with Tottenham Hotspur, former fellow Plymouth winger Gordon Astall and Welsh international Noel Kinsey, Blues' forward line outclassed any other in the old Second Division. All five reached double figures when the club won the 1954-55 championship.
In 1956/57, Alex was the club's leading scorer with 30 goals in all competitions including no fewer than five hat-tricks - a remarkable tally, especially for a winger.
Before he passed away in 2016, Alex used to grab every opportunity he could to see his beloved Blues on television and was a regular visitor to St.Andrew’s too, even in the season before his death. When he heard the fans break into a rousing chorus of 'Keep Right On to the End of the Road', he admitted to being a little choked.
"Some of the words have changed from my day," he recalled, "but I must admit I still get rather emotional as it brings back such happy memories, not only of the 1956 FA Cup run itself but also of the great fighting spirit we had in the team in those days.”
Over the years the opening verse of 'Keep Right On' has certainly been modified to identify more with Birmingham City as a football club and a couple of lines in the chorus have changed over time, but all in all it's the same wonderful song composed by Sir Harry Lauder in memory of his son which brought a tear to Alex’s eye every time he heard it.
Just as “I’m forever Blowing Bubbles” is associated exclusively with the fans of West Ham, likewise “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to the fans of Liverpool, over the last 60 years “Keep Right On” has become synonymous with the fans of Birmingham City and is accepted throughout the world of football as OUR anthem. Back in 1956, Blues’ winger Alex Govan could never have realised that his spontaneous rendition of Sir Harry Lauder’s famous music-hall composition on the team bus to Leyton Orient would one day earn him a place of immortality in Blues proud history. And rightly so. KRO Alex!
Actual words as originally composed by Sir Harry Lauder in 1917
Ev'ry road thro' life is a long, long road,
Fill'd with joys and sorrows too,
As you journey on how your heart will yearn
For the things most dear to you.
With wealth and love 'tis so,
But onward we must go.
Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end,
Tho' the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend.
Tho' you're tired and weary still journey on,
Till you come to your happy abode,
Where all the love you've been dreaming of
Will be there at the end of the road.
With a big stout heart to a long steep hill,
We may get there with a smile,
With a good kind thought and an end in view,
We may cut short many a mile.
So let courage ev'ry day
Be your guiding star alway.
Words as sung by Blues fans today
As you go through life it's a long, long road
There'll be joys and sorrows too
As we journey on we will sing this song
For the boys in Royal Blue.
We're often partisan - la la la
We will journey on - la la la
Keep right on to the end of the road
Keep right on to the end
Though the way be long let your heart beat strong
Keep right on to the end
Though you're tired and weary
Still journey on 'til you come to your happy abode
With all our love we'll be dreaming of
We'll be there at the end of the road.