Do you know the Muffin Man? | the story of an English nursery rhyme

By Lisa Ruping Cheng

Will we call a man who delivers muffins house-to-house a “muffin man” today? Obviously in older times we did. The popular nursery rhyme The Muffin Man is an English folk song. The lyrics are dynamic, easy to remember and they rhyme well. The melody is cheerful. The widely known lyrics are as follows:

“Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man?

Do you know the muffin man who lives on Drury Lane?

Yes I know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man;

Yes I know the muffin man who lives on Drury Lane.”

We tend to visualize the muffins as the contemporary muffins we see freshly baked in the supermarkets. The muffins referred to in the lyrics must have looked like English muffins, not the sweeter, cake-like American muffins. An illustration by the English illustrator Paul Sandby shows us the image of a muffin man in the 18th century. I imagine in those times muffins were household staples that were consumed on a regular basis.

Nowadays if we crave for a muffin, we either get one from Tim Hortons, or get a dozen from a nearby grocery store. If we order delivery of pastry it usually is for special occasions or custom made specialties. I would imagine that the muffins in the lyrics would look like the English muffins we can find on the shelves of the bakery sections in the supermarkets. They are plain in color, tasting a bit sour with chewy texture, and are used to make the popular breakfast dish Egg Benedict.

Since the verses of the Muffin Man are in a question form, this song evolved into forms of games and ring dances. To answer the question another person will respond by saying yes or no. Question verses make a folk song so much more lively and versatile!

I like that the term “muffin man” is repeated many times in the lyrics and the new word that rhymes with “muffin man”, “Drury Lane” occurs in the very end, giving the song a strong finishing sound with a surprise.

“Man” and “Lane” rhymes beautifully!

Taking a look at the harmony structure, it progresses from tonic to subdominant and dominant in the first verse and in the seond verse the melody repeats then falls back to tonic as resolution.

To sing it in solfege can reveal the harmonic structure quickly:

So do do re | mi do do ti | la re re do | ti so so

So do do re | mi do do do | re re so so | do

(I used vertical lines to mark measures; we can see the structure is symmetrical.)

If Mozart had picked the Muffin Man to write some variations for piano wouldn’t the Muffin Man have become as famous as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? Now in 2021, will there be interest among contemporary composers to revisit the traditional harmony in folk songs and making them new? As a pianist myself, this is a question to contemplate!

The balanced structure, conventional harmony, and the dynamic, easy to remember lyrics make The Muffin Man popular. We can learn to sing or play this song with any instrument. There are numerous arrangements to choose from in the internet. I have written a beginner’s piano version too. For further interest, please follow the link below to explore a variety of sheet music for “The Muffin Man”

The Muffin Man, For beginner to level one piano

The Muffin Man Duet for easy piano

To add on new elements to this folk song, one can create a different version of the lyrics in English. If I were to write new lyrics I would change muffin man to a subject that we can all relate to in the current time. What about using “the cat next door” to subsitute “the muffin man” and using “naps by the rising dough” to substitute “lives on Drury Lane”? (I happen to have dough rising in the kitchen at this moment!)

My adventurous re-written lyrics are as follows:

“Do you know the cat next door, the cat next door, the cat next door

Do you know the cat next door who naps by the rising dough?

Yes I know the cat next door, the cat next door, the cat next door

Yes I know the cat next door who naps by the rising dough.”

To hear The Muffin Man sung in solfege, in the old and the new lyrics, please listen to the same-title episode in WowoSpot Kids Podcast.

(Attribution of the featured image: Paul Sandby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Wowospot

Produce and publish quality kids content for fun, creative learning and education.

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