The William Blake Blog

“Jerusalem” and the Commonwealth Games
Why do English athletes sing the Blake-Parry hymn "Jerusalem" at the Commonwealth Games? Can it represent a more diverse England?

It is often with English sporting events—as with the Ashes tournament at Headingley in 1981 or the Rugby World Cup of 2003—that we see a resurgence of interest in ‘Jerusalem’.

Written by William Blake as part of his Preface to Milton a Poem, the stanzas beginning 'And did those feet...' were set to music a century later by Sir Hubert Parry during the First World War. Parry's music was instantly popular and, while intended to inspire troops abroad and people at home to support the war effort when it was first performed on 28 March, 1916, Parry soon removed permission from the organisation Fight for Right to perform his music. He considered that group too jingoistic and, instead, gave the copyright to his wife's friend, Millicent Fawcett, saying that he hoped it would become the "women voters' hymn."

A century later and the appeal of 'Jerusalem' is perhaps most often felt - outside of Last Night of the Proms - during sporting tournaments. Nowhere is this clearer than the adoption of the song for the Commonwealth Games, the only example where it has been officially selected to represent a national team, in this case Team England. For the 2010 New Delhi Games, Commonwealth Games England (CGE) launched a public vote to select the anthem to be played for Team England at the welcoming ceremony and when winners took the podium. Choice was restricted to ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ as well as ‘Jerusalem’, but the latter was the clear winner with 52.5 per cent of the vote, as opposed to 32.5 per cent for ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and a mere 12 per cent for ‘God Save the Queen’.

As various commentators have observed, one of the most interesting factors of the debate around such sporting anthems is how they demonstrate the composite nature of the United Kingdom. While royal events in the twenty-first century try to emphasise the union in the United Kingdom, the major sporting achievements of the same period (the Olympics aside) have tended to factionalize the nations of the UK. One of the simplest reasons for the popularity of ‘Jerusalem’ as a sporting anthem in a number of areas could be that—in contrast to the alternatives—it mentions the word ‘England’.

While sport itself may break up the UK into its different parts, it also focuses attention on the diversity of contemporary England and Englishness. While we may often hear, rightly, of Black British voices, 'Jerusalem' also offers an opportunity to think of a Black Englishness that is also part of our national identity, not simply on the field or on the pitch, but off it too.

In 2018, for example, Jazmin Sawyers, a singer and athlete born to a Jamaican father and an English mother, and the black British pianist and music producer Tokio Myers released a new version of ‘Jerusalem’ for the Commonwealth Games, both bringing their musical talents to the hymn that celebrated all the races that comprise Team England. As Myers said in an interview at the time, 'I feel honoured and privileged to be able to put my own spin on this iconic track', while Sawyers told journalists: 'It’s always an honour representing Team England in the Games. It’s even more special to be singing vocals on Jerusalem, especially because I was able to record it in front of my teammates. It’s definitely going to push me harder in training and on the track.'

  Jerusalem (The Official Anthem of Commonwealth Games England 2018) (Official Video)

Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the Fight for Englishness is published by Oxford University Press and is available from their web site or Amazon and all good book stores. RRP: £25.