Are You Sleeping, Brother John? may sound familiar even if you’ve not heard the nursery rhyme before as it builds on an existing song structure from continental Europe instead of being derived from Britain or the USA. That’s because it’s an English translation of one of the most famous French nursery rhymes of all time, Frère Jacques, which means Brother Jack, alluding to a monk in a monastery ringing bells.
The lyrics were intended to be translated directly but there was an error in understanding the French as is often the case with cross-cultural songs. The original French lyrics include the line, “Sonnez les matines!” The word “matines” refers to matins, a time for morning prayer. However, as “matin” is the French word for “morning” the line has been mistranslated as “The morning bells are ringing!” instead of the correct “Ring the matins!”, an instruction to ring the bells for matins.
Are You Sleeping, Brother John? Lyrics
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Brother John, Brother John,
Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.