In the state of Mississippi, in the early part of the twentieth century, there lived an African American man nicknamed Donkey Jones, so called for his resemblance to this animal. In his early forties at this time, he was well known for the fact that he never complained about his lot despite the difficulty of his job picking cotton, and for his skill as a blues singer and guitarist, done during his off hours.
Nevertheless, he was arbitrarily told one day that his services as a cotton picker were no longer needed at the plantation where he was based, and so he was forced out of the place, with only the clothes on his back and his beloved guitar for company.
Donkey had heard others speak of the bustling metropolis in the north known as Chicago, where those of his kind could live with in freedom and practice whatever trade they wished, including music, and so he reasoned he would travel north to try his luck in the city. On his way walking to the nearest town where he could catch a train up north, he met his acquaintance Dog Smith, lying in the grass beside the road. Likewise nicknamed for his resemblance to said animal, Dog was also a blues musician, though he lacked the steady employment Donkey had once enjoyed. Dog’s instrument of choice was a harmonica (or, as it is termed in blues musical circles, a “harp”), which he was palming in his hands.
“Donkey, my man!” Dog exclaimed when he saw his friend. “What you doing out here?”
“I been fired,” said Donkey. “Boss man, he say I’m too old to be pickin’ cotton no more and that he ain’t gonna waste no more money on me. Can’t get no work around here no-how, no ways.”
“Man, ain’t that the truth!” Dog answered. “Can’t find no work plowin’ no fields myself, either. Got so bad that my old lady, she done thrown me out. Said I was too old for her now and that she needed a younger man. What can he give her I can’t? Anyhow, looks like we in the same boat now, brother.”
“Yeah,” said Donkey. “Right now I’m planning to go to Chicago, seeing as all the good folks is goin’ there now!”
“Man, that’s where I’m goin’!” said Dog. “We should be goin’ together. And playin’ together when we get there. We make good music together, don’t we?”
“Sho nuff,” agreed Donkey. “And we can make plenty pennies doin’ it in Chicago, so I hear.”
The two began to go on their way, but didn’t get very far before they met another acquaintance. Cat Sullivan, unlike his friends, had received his nickname on account of his speed and quick wittedness rather than his appearance, but he was, like them, in dire straits at the moment. Considerably direr straits, as we will soon learn.
“Cat, what you doing out here?” Donkey asked him. “You should be out overseein’ for Massa Stovall, ain’t you?”
“Not anymore I ain’t!” said Cat, apprehensively. “Massa Stovall, he says I done raped his daughter, and he gonna get that old lynch mob of his out to kill me!”
“You didn’t actually rape his daughter, did you?” Dog asked with concern.
“Naw,” said Cat. “But Stovall, he got it in for me ever since I made overseer. He don’t like it none when overseers is the same race as whom they is overseein’. That, and the fact that I is so extremely popular with the ladies, and his daughter ain’t got no self-control, and nobody knows who really did it to her, is the reason for my current predicament. I don’t know what I is going to do….”
“You can come with us,” Donkey said. “We’s going to Chicago to play music.”
“How can I play music with y’all?” said Cat. “I left my g-tar black at the plantation!”
“We’ll find one for you once we gets to Chicago,” said Dog. “ ‘Sides which, you don’t need no instrument to make no music. You can fake it, like them Mills Brothers do with their voices.”
“Right on!” said Cat. “I can do that. Just so long as I gets out of Mississippi, I can do whatever you want!”
After a further march, they were stopped by a loud bass voice chanting scales. This they recognized as their mutual friend Rooster Brewster, who was well known for the quality of his vocalizations. Rooster promptly greeted his acquaintances in friendly tones, and they him.
“We done heard you miles away, Rooster,” said Donkey. “What you doing out here?”
“I done got sacked from the laundry,” said Rooster. “White man comes into the place, laughs at me. Says I ain’t supposed to be touchin’ no white man’s laundry with my black hands. I gets incensed, gets out my knife and cuts him. That I supposedly is not supposed to do to a white man in that town, so I is run out of my job and the town, besides.”
“You interested at all in goin’ up north to Chicago with us?” Donkey asked him. “We is expecting to do well up there in the music trade?”
“Hell, yeah!” said Rooster. “Any place is better than staying here in Mississippi. Black folks ain’t got nothin’ goin’ for us here. Not like up North.”
The others agreed, and Rooster was soon installed as the group’s singer.
As it was getting dark now, the four black men determined that they needed to stay somewhere for the evening before proceeding onward to Chicago. However, at the next town, the only hotel available was run by people who impolitely referred to the quartet as “niggers” and refused to serve them. Consequently, they were forced to take shelter around the village green, in spite of the risk of being arrested for vagrancy. That is, until Rooster remembered something.
“Last time I was around here,” he said, “there was a shack that was in good condition that nobody was using. If it’s still up, we could be using it tonight.”
“Better than spendin’ the night out here,” said Donkey.
“Uh-huh,” said Dog. “And if they had food, that’d be a bonus.”
They walked to the shack, but, as it cast a bright light, it seemed the place was already occupied. Looking through the windows, they saw that a group of mentally impaired white men of ill repute were occupying the cabin, enjoying a repast as they did. This Donkey dutifully reported to his colleagues.
“Man!” Rooster exclaimed angrily. “Them crackers has all the luck. They get everythin’, we get nothin’.”
“Not this time,” said Cat. “I got me a way of scarin’ people that might just get them out and us in.”
“Lay it on us,” said Donkey.
They discussed the plan, silently, for several minutes. Then Donkey began playing his guitar and Dog his harmonica in a rhythmic train-like pattern. Then Cat began slapping the bark of a nearby tree as if it were the skin of a drum while doing weird vocalizations. Then Rooster began singing some improvised lyrics about the extent of how his woman had done him wrong, and declaiming, at the same time, the skill at which she could “bake jelly roll” for him. The cumulative effect was to disturb the men in the shack, and send them scurrying towards the window to see what the problem was- as Cat intended.
“NOW!” he said.
The four black men burst through the window en masse, obliterating the glass in the frame as they did. The immediacy and boldness of the act scared the men in the shack, to the extent that they promptly left it post-haste. This allowed Donkey, Dog, Cat and Rooster, while afflicted with minor cuts and lacerations from the broken glass, to eat the food the men had left behind, and then retire comfortably to the meager beds surrounding the living room.
The men they had displaced were sorely incensed by the displacement, and the leader of the group, a man of gross insensitivity, spoke up as soon as the lights when out in the shack.
“Them niggers took us by surprise, is what happened,” he said. “Blinkin, you go in and dispose of them niggers so we can get back in there.”
“How come I gots to do it, boss?” Blinkin demanded.
“‘Cause I done TOLD you to do it, ya dumb asshole!” said the boss, taking out his pistol and aiming it at him. “Now, unless ya wants to be full of lead, you go DO it!”
Grumbling and cursing, Blinkin walked to the kitchen and shut the door. As there was no light, he had to make some. Fortunately, he saw a book of matches on the floor, took one and lit it. Unfortunately, they had fallen out of Cat’s coat pocket, for he had purchased them earlier to light his cigarettes. As soon as Cat heard the sound of the matches being struck, he sprang to his feet with an agility that more than justified his nickname.
“What the hell you doin’ with my matches, white boy?” he demanded fiercely. “I don’t ‘low no other man besides me to touch my matches!”
Blinkin did not respond. Instead, he backed into Dog, who woke up angrily and pulled him to the ground. Donkey found him, cuffed him around his neck, and escorted him out of the place, but not before Rooster spat in his face contemptuously.
“Tell your boss,” Rooster said, “that, if he wants this place back, he gonna have to fight for it!”
Blinkin reported this information back to his boss, indicating that “them niggers” was “crazy” as well, and the white men decided it was best that they find some other place to spend the night. The following morning, the four black men caught the train to Chicago, where they soon became popular and influential musicians and lived happily ever after.
Or so it was said, anyway.
Based on “The Bremen Town Musicians” by the Brothers Grimm.