The Muppet Musicians of Bremen

In 1972, when The Muppet Musicians of Bremen was broadcast, my children were 12, 10, and 8, so I am pretty sure we watched it together. But somehow, the family got a CD of the show, and my kids were raised on the voices. Thats why the line “I remember it all like it was yesterday,” for example, will be followed without hesitation with “It was yesterday, you old faker.”

But now, being old myself and thinking about how many other old people I am going to find when we move to a retirement center later this month, I have been giving the old show some new thought. That’s what this essay is about.  Bette and I are headed  for Bremen.

I’m going to skimp on the plot. I discovered that it can be fairly described as Type 130 in the Aarne-Thompson classification of folk tales and the theme is summarized as follows: “outcast animals find a new home.” [1] Well, maybe just a touch more than that.

The Plot

Not counting Kermit, who plays a very important role in the story, we have four animals to consider. Leroy the Donkey, T.R. the rooster, Rover Joe the hound, and Ms. Catgut, a 13 year old blues-singing cat. I’m going to skip over Leroy and T.R. with not much more than a mention. Leroy’s master was about to “retire him: with a shotgun; T. R.’s master had chicken stew in mind for his old rooster. That’s why they ran away.

Bremen72RecordBut before we get to Rover Joe, let’s go back and pick up Kermit. Leroy’s bumbling master, Mordecai Sledge, managed to throw a Sousaphone up in a tree and it came down around Leroy’s neck. Leroy takes off, hauling a whole wagon of musical instruments  behind him. He doesn’t know what this thing around his neck is and, having escaped “from”—with no thought yet given to the “to” part—he doesn’t really know who he is either. Kermit solves both of those problems.

Kermit tells Leroy that the funny twisty thing around his neck is a Sousaphone (he says tuba, but why quibble?) and that it is a musical instrument. Just blow in the small end. The first sounds are not all that promising, but pretty soon (less than a minute) his embouchure rounds into shape and the way he works those three valves can only be envied by other animals with…um…cloven hooves.

Once Leroy has become the Master of the Sousaphone, Kermit tells him that he is “a traveling musician” and that people will be delighted to hear him play. By the time Leroy picks up T.R., he announces that he is a traveling musician on his way to Bremen [2]. T.R., it turns out, is an accomplished banjo player, standing firmly on his own two feet while also picking with one foot and fingering with the other. [3]

Let me remind you that the second part of my interest in this wonderful story comes from the imminence of our move to a retirement center. I have begun to wonder whether I am going to meet people who are just waiting to die or who have a story they need to tell or something to belong to.  I may very well wind up in one of those places myself, but until I do, maybe there is something I can do to help.  In any case, that possibility made me think that maybe I should take another look or two at the story.  Maybe it can be more than just a collection of straightlines for my kids.

Of course, it is not fair to compare Rover Joe reluctance to join the band with T. R.’s eagerness, because T. R. was looking down the blade of an axe and Rover Joe was just despondent. Still, it is true that it took Leroy one invitation to bring T. R. on board and a substantial conversation was required for Rover Joe.  I’d guess that is the more common case.

Here’s Rover Joe’s one answer. “‘Cause I’m old. I’m beat up. I’m wored away. And I’m muppetbremen6throwed out.” That can be usefully abbreviated as OBUWATO. It is why, in response to the first question, he is sad. It is why, in response to the second question, the reason that his master, Mean Floyd, threw him out the window. They invite him to join them as a travelling musician. Rover Joe declines. What to know what the reason was? OBUWATO. He says it so often that T.R. begins beak-synching with him.

But, it turns out that he can play a trombone superbly, so they are on their way. The next stop is a cemetery, where they find a cat lying on her back on one of the grave stones, four feet straight up in the air.

She’s waiting to die, she says, and asks them to leave her alone. That’s what she asks, but, of course, that is not what she wants. When they begin to leave, she takes off on a very bluesy song that begins, “Well now everybody left me, and I’ll soon be dead and gone…”

The three musicians come back, only to be informed that “a cat kind of likes to die inCatgut private if you know what I mean.” That seems clear enough. T. R. hears her with respect. “Come on Rover Joe, the lady’s got her rights.” But again, that is not what she wants and the second verse of the song begins “Well now no one care about this story…”

All three musicians say they want to hear the story, so Catgut tells it. She made friends with the rats in the pantry after chasing them for 13 years and her master threw her out.  That is when Rover Joe objects, “But you can’t just sit here and wait to die!”

Catgut’s response is direct for once. “What else is there for me to do?” We know “what else” there is because she is talking to traveling musicians and just as Leroy asked T.R. to join and they both asked Rover Joe to join, now the three ask Catgut to join. It turns out that Catgut is a top of the line trumpet player so they proceed down the road with some very good music from a Sousaphone, a banjo, a trombone, and a trumpet.

And that’s all the story I care about. You can deal with the Happily Ever After part yourselves. There are three more small matters I would like to address before I wrap this up.

Who are you?

TRIn the first scene after Leroy escapes, he is just a donkey running away. But he runs into Kermit, who says, in effect, “You are not a runaway donkey, you are a traveling musician!” I have never seen, in real life, the instantaneous transformation Leroy goes through because Kermit gave him an identity, but I have very often seen a new name given and I have seen a person grow into that name.  I have been that person.

Kermit gave Leroy a name that carried some very important things with it. Hope, for instance. And intention. The animals never get to Bremen, but “being on the road to Bremen” is a great help to them and crucially important to the plot. What’s in a name?

What’s your story?

Leroy and T. R. were faced with imminent disaster so they didn’t need a story. We get the story because we see it happen, but neither of these characters actually tells the story. Rover Joe and Catgut do tell their stories and nothing is going to happen for them until the story is told. For these two characters, having a chance to tell the story seems to free them to do something else.

It may be worth saying that that isn’t always what happens. Sometimes telling the story (over and over) is chosen as the alternative to doing something else. I have seen people fight off a present opportunity because if they accepted the opportunity, they would have to give up the old narrative in which someone had wronged them. [4] If it is a choice between the story or the action, I would prefer the action. But in this movie, the story is the prelude to the action and we get to see how powerful it an be to have a chance to tell your story.

What else can I do?

No action looks all that bad when nothing else can be done. It is the invitation to join in that turns lives around. They ask Rover Joe to join them before they know whether he can play any kind of instrument. He is not promising. He doesn’t know the difference between a trombone and a ham bone. [5] But when he joins the group, it unleashes something in him and he is instantly proficient.  It’s a movie; what can I tell you.

I think it is this availability of an alternative that makes everything work. A few muppetbremen2moments ago, you were lying here in solitary misery. Catgut was waiting to die and Rover Joe had been OBUWATO. But someone said, “Why don’t you join us?” The choice is really clear. Yes awful things have happened to you. Yes you are lying here because you had no alternative. But now you do. We are asking you to join us.

I really appreciate the power of that.  You pick up a task and with it, you get colleagues. And together, you head down the road to Bremen. You don’t actually need to get there. You just need to start.

[1] I didn’t know any of this. This is all from Wikipedia.
[2] Bremen is Bremen, Louisiana for the Muppets. The original version, “The Town Musicians of Bremen (Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten) has Bremen, Germany in mind because it has a reputation for being favorable to freedom.
[3] He would have been a four drumstick rooster, which accounts partly for why Farmer Lardpork was so eager to stew him.
[4] In Joel Hopkins marvelous movie Last Chance Harvey, Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) says she doesn’t want to hear Harvey Shine’s (Dustin Hoffman’s) excuse for missing their rendezvous because she is afraid it will be a really good excuse and she has become comfortable with her life as a disappointment.  I’ve seen that.
[5] And I have known some trombonists who actually were hambones, to it is an understandable confusion.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to The Muppet Musicians of Bremen

  1. hesskw says:

    I listened to what they had on youtube. Fun. Thanks,

    Karl >

  2. hessd says:

    I think the story is fun, but I think the issue is really serious, especially as Bette and I head off to join the musicians.

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