Behind the History and Meaning of the Classic Nursery Rhyme, “Frère Jacques”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The classic French nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques,” which in English is sometimes known as “Brother John” or “Brother Jacques,” is one of those songs that, despite it being in a foreign language, is known by many in the United States for its pleasant tone and staccato rhythm.

It’s also a fun song to sing as a “round,” in which singers begin the song at different times and sing in unison, if not in concert.

But what does this French song mean? And why do we know it so well in the United States? Let’s dive in.

Origins and Meaning

The song is about a French friar, or a type of monk (i.e. brother, or “frère” in French), who has slept too long and is prodded to rise and wake up to sound the bell. Why? Because a specific hour of the night, the time before morning but after midnight, known as the “matins,” is designated for prayer time.

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The earliest version of the song’s melody is traced back to a French manuscript from 1780, titled “Recueil de Timbres de Vaudevilles.” The Bibliothèque Nationale estimates that it was written between 1775 and 1785. And the “Frère Jacques” melody is labeled “Frère Blaise” in this manuscript.

James Fuld, a sheet music collector from the 20th century, revealed that the song was first published in 1811, and the words and music were first published together in Paris in 1869. An earlier publication from 1825 showed the lyrics with a description of the melody.

The French musicologist Sylvie Bouissou is reported to have found some evidence that composer Jean-Philippe Rameau might have written the music.

The song’s French lyrics go:

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Din, din, don. Din, din, don.

And the song’s contemporary English translation goes:

Brother Jacques, Brother Jacques,
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Ring/Sound [the bells for] matins! Ring [the bells for] matins!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

The song’s traditional English lyrics go:

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Brother John, Brother John,
Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

Where Does the Song Come From?

Some believe that there is a relationship between the famed nursery rhyme and the 17th-century lithotomist (or surgeon who removes stones from vital organs), Frère Jacques Beaulieu, who was also known as Frère Jacques Baulot. Though little evidence was ever found about that connection.

Others like the academic writers Francesca Draughon and Raymond Knapp have argued that the rhyme was originally a song used to taunt people of other religions, like Jews or Protestants.

Another thought was suggested by Martine David and A. Marie Delrieu, who said that the song might have been invented to mock Dominican friars, known in France as the Jacobin order, for their relaxed lifestyles. What was thought of by some as “sloth.”

[RELATED: Behind the Meaning and the History of the Traditional Nursery Rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”]

But as with any common, long-sung nursery rhyme or traditional song, these are all likely meanings superimposed onto the tune after the fact. As these uses are too specific (and even mean-spirited) to be the sole meaning and sole reason for the song’s longevity.

Little Known Facts

1. In chemistry, the circuit rank of a molecular graph, which is the number of rings in the smallest set of smallest rings, is referred to as the Frèrejacque number.

2. Frère Jacques is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese produced by Benedictine monks from the Saint-Benoit-du-lac Abbey in Quebec.

3. During the Tiananmen Square protests, demonstrators chanted political slogans to the tune of the nursery rhyme. In fact, there is a long tradition amongst children in China, Vietnam, and other areas of Asia in which children share songs with their own lyrics sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques.”

4. Frère Jacques is the name of a chain of French restaurants in the United Kingdom, it’s also the name of a French restaurant in New York City and in Dublin, Ireland.

Final Thoughts

Monks are known as diligent, trustworthy, religious-minded fellows. So, a song about one being lazy is memorable and fun. How is he lazy? He overslept. It’s not egregious, nor is it dangerous. It’s harmless, but counter to his normal expected behavior.

But from this specific problem for the friar comes a nice metaphor that can be used in any number of situations. And, of course, that’s the combination of a song having a long life.

That seems to be at the root of this traditional nursery rhyme. And it’s sung to children, often around bedtime, bringing the real-life, everyday connection to the tune.

Photo: Gettyimages.com

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