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Frère Jacques | Are You Sleeping? | the story, lyrics and music

Lisa Ruping Cheng

Frère Jacques is a very familiar folk song well loved by children. It originates from France. My earliest memory about this tune goes back to my kindergarten days. I learned this song in Mandarin Chinese, not in English, and the meanings in the Chinese lyrics were entirely different from the English version. Let’s take a look at the different versions of lyrics.

The French lyrics

The earliest print of the song can trace back to the late 19th century.

The original song Frère Jacques, is about a monk who sleeps in in the midnight when he is supposed to wake up to ring the bell for an early morning prayer. He is therefore urged to get up to ring the bell. The lyrics are as follows:

Frère Jacques
Frère Jacques
Dormez vous?
Dormez vous?
Sonnez les matines
Sonnez les matines
Ding ding dong
Ding ding dong

English lyrics

When this tune evolved into English version, the original meaning had been modified. The “urging to ring the bell” was changed to “the bells are ringing.” As a result the story has been completely altered: it has become a lovely, intimate nursery rhyme making us visualize a little boy sleeping in in the morning and may be late for school. The lyrics are as follows:

Are you sleeping
Are you sleeping?
Brother John?
Brother John?
Morning bells are ringing
Morning bells are ringing
Ding ding dong
Ding ding dong

It is intriguing to see how folk songs evolve over time across different cultures and how adaptable they can be: the nature of the simplicity in lyrics, harmony and meaning makes them easy to spread, variate and communicate.

Sing it as a Round

Since the opening melody repeats itself and the hormony follows the simple Tonic-Dominant-Tonic rule, this tune is easy to perform as a round. That is, to perform it in a canon form with multiple voices. What is a round? It refers to a musical form where three or more parts sing the same melody in unison, each part beginning at different times.

As an experiment, let’s take a listen to a recording of three voices singing one after another and examine if the result is viable in harmony.

By lining up the lyrics, we can see what it will look like in the first four bars.

The round works well harmonically becuase throughout the song it follows the same pattern of Tonic-Dominant-Tonic-Dominant-Tonic.

Versatile in making arrangement

I have written a four-hand piano duet for the tune in F major. Let’s take a listen to it too. ( Please visit WowoSpot Kids Podcast to listen to the same name episode!)

In the duet I add accompaniment elements to fill some spaces, thus making the texture thicker and richer. The duet is a fun piece for a prime level young pianist to play with another as a team. Not only it serves as an excellent material for establishing good ears (to differentiate and identify different voices), also it is entertaining to play in a recital.

The Chinese version: Two Tigers

The chinese version of the song I have learned as a kid is about two tigers:

兩隻老虎 兩隻老虎 (Two tigers, two tigers)

跑得快 跑得快 (Run fast, run fast)

一隻沒有耳朵 (One has no ears)

一隻沒有尾巴 (One has no tail)

真奇怪 真奇怪 (Very strange, very strange.)

It is unknown who wrote the lyrics of the Two Tigers. What I am certain is the lyrics have done a good job to stimulate young kids’ imagination. One can easily replace the word “ears” or “tail” into something similar, such as lips, or eyes, as long as the new words have the same numbers of syllables as the original.

To listen to the podcast of this blog post please look for the same title WowoSpot Kids Podcast episode. The episode will be released on Monday, August 30th!)

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WowoSpot Kids

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)