The Sagebrush Singers

The German Inspiration

This fairy tale originated in eastern Westphalia, now part of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The tale is attributed to the von Haxthausen family of Paderborn. Wilhelm Grimm was a family friend and a regular guest at the family’s Bökenhof Castle. Baron August Franz, the head of the family, had heard the tale of the traveling animals while he was away on business and recounted the story and others like it to Wilhelm. “The Bremen Town Musicians” was included in the second edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, published in 1819. [1]

The text below is a modern English translation based on the original German version (“Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten”).

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The Bremen Town Musicians

Statue of The Bremen Town Musicians

This bronze statue of the Bremen Town Musicians stands next to Bremen’s town hall. It was created in 1953 by sculptor Gerhard Marcks. Many people believe that rubbing the donkey’s front legs will bring good luck. Photo © Hyde Flippo

Once upon a time there was a donkey who tirelessly carried sacks of grain to the mill for many years. But the donkey’s strength was beginning to fail. Each day he found it more difficult to do his work. His master was thinking of no longer feeding him, but the donkey, guessing that something was wrong, decided to run away. He set out on the road to Bremen, intending to get a job as a town musician. Before long he saw a hunting dog lying by the side of the road panting, as if he had run a long way.

“Well, hunter, why are you so out of breath?” asked the donkey.

“Oh dear,” said the dog, “because I am old and getting weaker every day, I can no longer join in the hunt, and my master wanted to kill me. I ran away, but how am I to make a living now?”

“You know what,” said the donkey, “I am going to Bremen to become a town musician. You may as well go with me, and take up music too. I can play the lute and you can beat the drums.” The dog thought that was a good idea, and they walked on together. It was not long before they came to a cat sitting in the road, looking very sad. “Now then, what is the matter with you, old whiskers?” said the donkey.

“I’d like to know who would be cheerful when his neck is in danger,” answered the cat. “Now that I am old, my teeth are getting dull, and I would rather sit by the oven and purr than chase after mice. My mistress wanted to drown me, so I took off, but good advice is scarce [2], and I do not know what is to become of me.”

“Go with us to Bremen,” said the donkey, “and become a town musician. After all, you understand serenading at night.” The cat liked the idea and went with the donkey and the dog. Soon after that, the three travelers passed by a yard where a rooster was perched on a gate crowing with all his might.

“Your cries are enough to pierce bone and marrow,” said the donkey. “What is the matter?”

“I have forecast good weather,” replied the rooster, “because it is the day when the lady of the house washes the clothes and wants to dry them. But because Sunday guests are coming tomorrow, my mistress has no mercy and has told the cook that she wants to eat me in the soup. This evening they intend to chop off my head, so I am crowing with all my might while I still can.”

“It would be better for you to go with us, red-head,” said the donkey. “We are going to Bremen. You can always find something better than death. You have a strong voice, and when we make music together, it will be very pleasing.” The rooster found that agreeable, and the four companions went on together.

But they could not reach the city of Bremen in one day. In the evening they came to a forest, where they decided to spend the night. The donkey and the dog lay down under a large tree. The cat and the rooster went up into the branches, but the rooster flew up to the top, the safest place for him. Before he went to sleep he looked all round him to the four points of the compass [3], and thought that he saw a tiny spark burning in the distance. He called out to his companions that there must be a house not far off, as he could see a light shining.

The donkey said, “We had better get up and go there, for these are poor lodgings.” The dog said that he could do well with a few bones with a little meat on them. So they made their way toward where the light was, and soon it was shining more brightly and grew larger and larger, until they were standing before a brightly lit robbers’ house.

The donkey, the largest of them, went up to the window, and looked in.

“Well, what do you see?” asked the dog.

“What do I see?” answered the donkey. “A table set out with good food and drink, and robbers sitting there enjoying themselves.”

“That would suit us just fine,” said the rooster.

“Yes, indeed, if only we were there,” said the donkey.

Then the animals discussed how they might chase the robbers out, until finally they had a plan. The donkey was to place his front feet on the window, the dog was to get on the donkey’s back, the cat on top of the dog, and finallly the rooster would fly up and perch on the cat’s head. When that was done, all at once, on a signal, they began to perform their music. The donkey brayed, the dog barked, the cat meowed, and the rooster crowed. Then they all crashed through the window into the room, shattering the glass.

Hearing the dreadful wailing, the startled robbers jumped up, thinking it could only be a ghost, and fled in great fear out into the woods. Then the four companions sat down at the table and freely enjoyed the leftovers, feasting to their heart’s content.

When the four music-makers were finished, they put out the lights and looked for a place to sleep, each according to his nature and his desire. The donkey lay down on the manure pile, the dog behind the door, the cat on the hearth next to the warm ashes, and the rooster sat on the rooftop. Because they were tired from their long journey, they soon fell asleep.

When midnight had passed, the robbers saw from the distance that no light was burning in the house, and that everything appeared quiet. Their boss said, “We should not have let ourselves be chased away.” He ordered one of them to go back and investigate. The man they sent found everything quiet and went into the kitchen to strike a light. He mistook the cat’s glowing, fiery eyes for live coals, and held a match next to them, so that it would catch fire. But the cat didn’t think it was funny and jumped into his face, spitting and scratching.

Terribly frightened, the robber ran towards the back door trying to escape, but the dog, who was lying there, jumped at him and bit his leg. As he ran across the yard past the manure, the donkey struck out and gave him a strong kick with his hind foot. The rooster, awakened by the noise, and now alert, cried down from the rooftop, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

Then the robber ran as fast as he could back to his boss, and said, “Oh, in that house there is a horrible witch. I felt her breath, and she scratched my face with her long fingers. And there is a man with a knife standing in front of the door, and he stabbed me in the leg. And a black monster is lying in the yard, and it struck at me with a wooden club. And the judge is sitting up there on the roof, and he was calling out, ‘Bring that rascal here!’ Then I ran away from the place as fast as I could.”

From that time forth, the robbers did not dare return to the house. But the four Bremen musicians liked it so well there, that they never left. And the mouth of the person who last told this tale is still warm. [4]


1. Source: Wilhelm Grimm’s comments in the 1857 German edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen.
2. “Aber nun ist guter Rat teuer” is just one of several German sayings found in the original German version. Roughly translated, it means: “It’s difficult to know what to do.”
3. The “four points of the compass” are east, west, north and south.
4. “…und der das zuletzt erzählt hat, dem ist der Mund noch warm.” is the last line of this fairy tale in the German version. Most German fairy tales end with the German equivalent of “…and they lived happily ever after” (“Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.” – lit., “And if they haven’t died, then they are still alive today.”) Once upon a time… = “Es war einmal…”


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