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Preacher's donkey was a horse 60 years ago

The hilarious story The Preacher's Donkey is a classic example of an anecdote that has improved with age. Thanks to expert advice from Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University, now enjoying retirement in California, we've traced its origin back to the 1930s or 1940s, when famous US radio comedian Bob "Bazooka" Burns recounted a similar tale about a horse instead of a donkey, to a nationwide audience.

One of Burns's listeners was young LeRoy Jones, of Mountain View, Oklahoma. Years later, after hearing two cowboy poets recite on The Johnny Carson Show, he began writing similar poems, and reciting them "where I could find anyone who would listen." In 1980, he rewrote Burns's story as a 14-verse poem called The Preacher's Horse. Since then, he has recited it with other poems in eight western states and in various radio shows.

"Others may have been telling the story at the time Bob Burns was doing so, or even before then," Jones told us by email. "Storytellers are notoriously inventive when telling their stories, and change them to fit their mood or the audience.

"I have even been known to change a word here and there in my own poems when I recite them. I had a good friend, now deceased, who would tell me not to worry when the words I used to the old time cowboy songs did not agree with the words he or others used.

"The songs that came down through the oral tradition were often changed because the one now singing it did not remember correctly or did not hear correctly the words to the song.

"So your quest to find the original author and the original words [of today's Preacher's Donkey] may never be fulfilled. Best wishes to you in your trying though. - LeRoy."

Bob Burns became famous during the 1930s and '40s as the strapping, ruddy-faced comedian who had radio audiences from coast-to-coast belly laughing at fanciful yarns about his kinfolk and old pals back in Arkansas.

But Burns is probably best remembered for the unique, homemade musical instrument he invented and dubbed the "Bazooka." In fact, because the strange horn was so well known, WWII combat soldiers nicknamed the Army's new shoulder-held rocket launcher the "bazooka," because of its blunderbuss appearance -- just like Burns' popular horn.

Musically inclined, young Burns was playing trombone and cornet in Van Buren's Queen City Silver Cornet Band before the age of 12 and, by 13, had formed his own string band. During practice one night in the back of Hayman's Plumbing Shop, Burns picked up a length of gas pipe and blew into it, making a sound something like a "wounded moose."

... Burns named his invention the "bazooka" (from "bazoo" meaning a windy fellow). Practicing constantly, Burns became good enough to play it in the Silver Cornet Band. Although many others tried, including some of the world's greatest musicians, he was the only one who could play it.
- From the Van Buren, Arkansas website.

And here, for the benefit of anyone who has not already read it on one of the dozens of websites that have posted it, is the text of one of the internet world's funniest stories:


A man bought a donkey from a preacher. The preacher told the man that the donkey (being the donkey of a preacher) had been trained in a unique way. The only way to make the donkey go was to say, "Hallelujah!" The only way to make it stop was to say, "Amen!"

The man was pleased with his purchase and immediately got on the animal to try out the preacher's instructions.

"Hallelujah!", shouted the man. The donkey began to trot. "Amen!", shouted the man. The donkey stopped immediately. "This is great!", the man thought.

With a "Hallelujah", he rode off, proud of his new purchase. The man traveled for a long time through some mountains. Soon he was heading towards a cliff. He could not remember the word to make the donkey stop. "Stop", said the man. "Halt!", he cried. The donkey just kept on going.

"Oh No!. Bible!, Church!, Please Stop!", shouted the man. The donkey just began to trot faster. He was getting closer and closer to the edge of the cliff.

Finally in desperation, the man said a prayer, "Please dear Lord. Please make this donkey stop before I go off the edge of this mountain. Amen." The donkey came to an abrupt stop just one step from the edge of the cliff.

"Hallelujah!" shouted the man.




Story first posted January 2005

Copyright 2005

Eric Shackle

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