Robert Francis: Despite her age, Mother Brown is still kicking

Oh Mother Brown, what is up? Oh, your knees?

I was really looking to write something about “mother” songs that were the staple of those old-time gospel tent meetings for a Mother’s Day column. I have a few copies of songbooks used at those old tent revival meetings and they always include some tearjerker about someone’s mother.

But I couldn’t find the information on those sometimes treacly songs. But I did find a story about a “mother” song that has its roots in Victorian England and has been recorded by everyone from Petula Clark to The Muppets.

The song is Knees Up Mother Brown and you may think you’ve never heard it, but you probably have. It is a pretty classic English dance hall number and is often used as a sing-along at West Ham United football (soccer) matches.

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Here are the usual classic lyrics, though they vary depending on who is singing:

Knees up Mother Brown
Knees up Mother Brown
Under the table you must go
Ee-aye, Ee-aye, Ee-aye-oh
If I catch you bending
I’ll saw your legs right off
Knees up, knees up
don’t get the breeze up
Knees up Mother Brown

First, you’ve got to ask what does “knees up” mean? The basic meaning is to throw a party or a dance. That’s pretty simple.

A bit more risqué version is that it alludes to Queen Victoria. If you remember your history, or watch plenty of PBS, you know Queen Victoria was in perpetual mourning when her husband Albert died. This lasted a long time.

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The following information comes from a great website called Roman Road London that digs into the history and culture of that city.

According to that site, Victoria, in the guise of “mother” of England, might need a bit of cheering up. It so happens she also had a servant, John Brown, and was rumored to have had a romantic relationship with him. You can probably guess the rest. The song, in that interpretation, is basically telling the Queen to have a bit of fun.

Though the song dates back to the Victorian era, it remained popular through World War I and, according to the Roman Road London site, there are reports of the song being sung on Armistice Night in November 1918.

In 1938, the song was written down, which spurred another round of popularity just in time for World War II. In the 1950s it started to become a West Ham United anthem.

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But it wasn’t over for the song. In 1964, the song was rewritten for Disney’s Mary Poppins in the form of the song, Step in Time. Songwriter Richard Sherman had seen a special effects man and London native teaching Walt Disney the Knees Up Mother Brown dance and was thus inspired. It’s the song Dick Van Dyke sings as he dances along the rooftops with fellow chimney sweeps. It’s a great scene.

That wasn’t the song’s only appearance in the 1950s. Noel Harrison (son of Rex) and Petula Clark sang it on Hullabaloo and in the 1970s, Monty Python put it on one of their albums.

In 1978, in the novel Eye of the Needle, set during Worth War II, author Ken Follett, quotes a lyric to the song that is related to blackouts during the blitz.

Joe brought his concertina, and Nobby brought the beer
And all the little nippers swung on the chandelier
A blackout warden passing yelled “Ma, pull down that blind
Just look at what you’re showing,” and we shouted “Never mind”

The song made it into the 1980s on The Muppet Show, sung by Fozzie Bear.

There’s little doubt Mother Brown is still keeping her knees up somewhere in the world now.

As to singing it to your mother on Mother’s Day? Might want to wait until she’s had a few pints in her before you sing a song about sawing legs off.