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What a rotten song ...


Filed: Friday, 11th October 2002
By: David Challoner


As many of our readers will be aware, this website is named after the song which was regularly heard on the Upton Park terraces for many years, right up to the beginning of the 1990s when it began to fade from popular use.

But where does the song 'Knees up Mother Brown' come from? We all know the words (or one version at least), but what about the story behind it? We asked super sleuth Dave Challoner to go on the trail...


May 2004: The Boleyn rocks to KUMB after West Ham beat Ipswich in the play-off semi final


Dating the bloody song is a pain in the arse. Being anonymously written makes it a complete unknown quantity, but it is certainly Pre-Edwardian and very probably Pre-Victorian if some of the contemporary songs are anything to go by.

Morris Dancing (an art form allegedly) comes from the same stock as what is known as Folk Dancing. As already mentioned this is of the arse kicking, knee Slapping, spoons on knee clapping, Back patting, face smacking, facial hair tweaking variety.

Every region had their own varieties of long-practised 'dances' and in fact, each walk of life did (There was a farmer's dance, peasant's dance, milkmaid's dance etc). The most common and famous of these still exist to some extent i.e. morris dancing, maypole dancing, court dancing (i.e. the stuff you see in the old medieval films).

However because only the rich could read and write, nobody ever actually wrote down how to do these things or the lyrics. So they were hand-me-down tunes and tales that changed through the the ages. Knees up Mother Brown (the song) may have roots way back in Edward the Confessor's times, if not before.

What has this got to do with KUMB, which is basically a song? Well, drinking basically. It's a thirsty song. The idea being to jig, jump around and generally make a lot of noise and sing the lyrics faster and faster until everybody collapses, out of breath, and needs a good lager to recover.

The actual meaning isn't important as such, but humorous lyrics help of course. Threatening to kneecap some poor old granny if she doesn't keep up is hilarious to me, anyway.

During the Victorian period the songs began to go underground and were only performed in pubs, bars and inns amongst the poor and alcohol dependant. The rich meanwhile turned away from their court dancing towards ballroom affairs (waltzes etc). Only the rabble would basically sing anything as risqué as KUMB.

It may well have become a Victorian showtune, but I can find no record of it anywhere in anything 'official' but knowing what Victorian penny shows were like, the one thing they were there for was a good "knees up".

This actually brings us to the phrase "Mother Brown". Now I can't find anybody famous with the name Brown from any period (the name Brown coming from the German 'Braun' of course, which I also searched for).

Then I remembered a little something; Queen Vicky herself. She was reportedly knocking off a certain Mr John Brown, who was played by Billy Connolly in the film 'Mrs Brown'. Vicky was well known as the 'Mother' of Britain and a miserable cow when she went into her life as a recluse for some 20+ years.

What would be more funny for the population than to sing a song telling her to "cheer up" and have a "knees up", else we'll hack your knees off and pull your bloomers off whilst we're at it?

So here we are, circa 1900-ish and the song gets round more and more. I can find a reference to the song in 1918 and apparently some Yanks singing it as they were packed off home from Portsmouth (which must have made an awful din).

They took with them quite a lot of our culture it seems (and plenty of Irish, Scots, Welsh and English people, who went to the land of opportunity). During the Second World War a lot of them absconded from the US over into Canada to avoid conscription and the war.



A karaoke sing-a-long version of the song


It's also in India thanks to our servicemen. I asked a couple of Maltese mates and they too know of it. So KUMB has been right the way around the globe. (You'd have to check with the Aussies - none of them I know are online at the moment, but it's probably there too and in South Africa.)

The song went into something of a remission during the 1918 to 1937 period; I'd assume due to the depression and the rebuilding after the war, plus the fact Mrs.Simpson just didn't fit the rhyme scheme...

Edwardian period, Ragtime music darling. Get with the funky rhythms. It seems to have made a comeback here, from 1933 onwards reaching a peak in 1938 - after which it became a major wartime favourite for keeping spirits (and knees) up.

This was (I assume) along with the good old wartime favourites such as 'Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line' and 'Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler?' (which, ironically, was written for the 1960s TV series 'Dad's Army' and not sung during the second world war at all).

'Run Hitler Run' - sung to the tune of 'Run Rabbit Run' was a favourite though, as was 'Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag' and numerous others like "Roll Me Over in the Clover', which made huge comebacks.

These songs were probably sung by older people but caught on with the younger war generation and, as such, some ten years later they made a huge comeback with Winifred Atwell a.k.a. 'Wonderful Winnie' (circa 1953 to 1958).

Eight years or so after the war would allow for all the kids sent to the country to pick up the old pub and show tunes from the old folks left behind, whilst the middle lot went to war. These kids would then, in 1953, be between 13 and 23 theoretically. A large portion of the 'party' generation were now into the Glenn Miller 'Big Band' sound, which Atwell capitalised on by making 'medley' tunes of the old favourites.

Why West Ham United supporters picked on the one tune I'm not sure, but it's all down to the Pearly Kings and Queens. Tottenham's Jewish sector kept out of it and Charlton, Arsenal, Fulham and Chelsea were not part of the true Cockney tradition which effectively left West Ham.

Ergo my theory. We got it by default; the same as 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles'.

That brings us up to 1958. After that the song is pretty commonly known, sung all over Britain and more specifically attached to the Hammers (Scunthorpe, meanwhile, pinched 'Any Old Iron' from us).

There is no report of it being sang at the 1923 FA Cup Final, which I found strange because that final is pretty well documented thanks to it being the first at Wembley, but somehow I can't believe that a crowd in such good spirits didn't sing something.



Comedy duo Elsie & Doris Waters sing a re-worded wartime rendition


Further investigation suggests the song pre-dates Queen Vic by a good two centuries, at least. I just don't believe it was known as 'Knees up, Mother Brown' prior to Victoria's reign. As previously reported, it is also known as 'Knees Up', 'Knees up Mother Brown' and 'Knees up, Mother Brown', but to the best of my knowledge has never just been known as 'Mother Brown'.

A possible link with witches has also been suggested. If there is a link then it'll probably be to Holinshead's 'Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland' in 1577 which provided much inspiration for our long-berated William Shakespokingstick and his play 'Macbeth'. None of the wierd sisters are ever named in it, but it's true that they are often known as Mother, Gammer or some other honorific title (a la Terry Pratchett).

Hacking at the knees and all that jazz, here's a couple of possible links:

Little (Barber) Shop of Horrors: unfortunately never a film, merely just something I thought would make an interesting title. Basically if you went in for a 'short, back and sides' you could also have that nasty tooth extracted and a gammy foot chopped off.

Folk Dancing: 'Knees up' as a phrase pre-dates Chaucer. Still no Mother Brown though, unless she's in Chaucer's tales....*goes off to investigate that one*

Knees up, Mother Brown: rhyming slang, to be more particular Cockney rhyming slang?

Mother Brown: Natural Remedies. I found a link to some old woman who produced herbal remedy crap.

Max Greenall - Linked to the phrase 'Mother Brown' somehow, though I don't know who he is *Goes off to investigate some more*

The most popular version of the song

Knees up Mother Brown!
Knees up Mother Brown!
Under the table you must go
Ee-i-ee-i-ee-i-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!

Oh My! What a rotten song!
What a rotten song! Oh, What a rotten song!
Oh My! What a rotten song!
What a rotten singer too!

Knees up Mother Brown!
Knees up Mother Brown!
Under the table you must go
Ee-i-ee-i-ee-i-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!

Ow's yer farver? All right!

Courtesy of ingeb.org/songs/kneesupm.html - make of it what you will.

Other versions of the song

An adapted version: www.quesera-sera.com/knnesup.htm

More Mother Brown - www.grainger.de/music/songs/kneesupm.html

Woohooo, another bloody version

Knees Up Mother Brown (Traditional)
Written By: Unknown Copyright Unknown

There came a girl from France
Who didn't know how to dance
The only thing that she could do
Was knees up Mother Brown

Oh, knees up Mother Brown
Knees up Mother Brown Knees up,
knees up, never let the breeze up,
Knees up Mother Brown

Oh, hopping on one foot
Hopping on one foot
Hopping, hopping, never stopping
Hopping on one foot

Oh, knees up Mother Brown
Knees up Mother Brown
Knees up, knees up, never let the breeze up,
Knees up Mother Brown

Oh, prancing up and down
Prancing up and down
Prancing, prancing, never dancing
Prancing up and down

Oh, knees up Mother Brown
Knees up Mother Brown
Knees up, knees up, never let the breeze up,
Knees up Mother Brown

And whirling round and round
Whirling round and round
Whirling, whirling, never twirling
Whirling round and round

Oh, knees up Mother Brown
Knees up Mother Brown
Knees up, knees up, never let the breeze up,
Knees up Mother Brown

Oh, knees up Mother Brown
Knees up Mother Brown Knees up,
knees up, never let the breeze up,
Knees up Mother Brown

Courtesy of kididdles.com/mouseum/k002.html



Even the Muppets have covered Knees up Mother Brown!


And finally a link to some Morris Dancers doing some dancing (no seriously, they call it dancing) to Knees Up Mother Brown: fp.millennas.f9.co.uk/londmorr.htm

Thus endeth my first lesson; I hope the people at the back were paying attention.

* This article was updated in October 2015 to include videos.


Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.







Your Comments


by Chris W
11:03AM 28th Apr 2012
''"Mother" was a title given to older women whether they'd had children or not e.g Mother Shipton the soothsayer. "Under the table" was an expression meaning drunk. I've never understood why a woman bending over would make the singer "saw her legs off". Especially as her rear end would be sticking out.

This made me wonder if an original crude version was "I'll **** your a*** right off." Bearing in mind in "Bless 'em all", the corporals have "bloomin'" sons, not the original army version! If KUMB originated in Victorian times, the ladies wore crotchless bloomers then hence maybe,"never let the breeze up". Experts say this was why the Cancan caused such a commotion when the dancers held one leg in the air! ''

by mikey
11:47PM 23rd Jun 2009
''How does the cockney rejects version go?''

by
06:24PM 21st Oct 2008
''I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, put a smile on my boat, loved it.''

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