March 21, 2013

Jerry Jeff Walker - Mr. Bojangles (1968)

Born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16, 1942, this country singer and songwriter is a local legend in the state of Texas. After his first band The Tones was rejected for an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in Philidelphia, Crosby and his group tracked down Dick Clark’s home and received the recommendation to try out at Baton Records in New York City. Although the band was signed to a deal, Walker was one of the two members instantly dropped from the group due to the label’s request of wanting a quartet. After graduating high school, Crosby joined the National Guard, but went AWOL traveling the country as a street folk singer, playing a ukulele. By 1963, Harriet Ottenheimer of the coffeehouse The Quorum had introduced him to the guitar; and, by 1966, Crosby had adopted his stage name of Jerry Jeff Walker. In the mid-1960s, he spent most of his time playing folk music in the Greenwich Village, New York. By the late ‘60s, he co-founded a group with Bob Bruno called Circus Maximus that had a successful single (“Wind”) and two full-length albums (Circus Maximus and Neverland Revisited). Bruno’s love for jazz, however, put an early end to the group and Walker went solo. Into the 1970s, he made his permanent residence in Texas where he still lives today, continuing to perform and record.

The song heard below was inspired by a man that Walker met in a jail cell on the 4th of July in 1965. After a murder during a Fourth of July parade and, not knowing who the killer was, the New Orleans police detained everyone who was near the scene of the crime. A homeless man who had already been in the holding cell, nicknamed Mr. Bojangles, began talking to Walker and telling him about his life and the dog he had which had been run over long ago. Wanting to change the mood, the other men in the cell asked Bojangles to do something entertaining, so he began to tap dance.

Although the subject of the song is based on a real person, Mr. Bojangles has never been properly identified. Uninformed rumors circulated for years that Mr. Bojangles was one of two African Americans in the area at the time: Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson or Babe Stovall. But Walker has refuted these estimates, citing that at the time jail cells in New Orleans were segregated by race. Thus, Robinson and Stovall wouldn’t have been in the same cell as Walker.

Written by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968 after the breakup of Circus Maximus, this song may be most famously known by its cover version by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1970. This version, first released on Walker’s 1968 album, Mr. Bojangles, is the original version and reached number seventy-seven on the charts. Besides the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the song has since been covered by Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis, Jr., and many others.

album art

Jerry Jeff Walker - Mr. Bojangles (1968)

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I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn-out shoes
With silver hair, a ragged shirt, and baggy pants
The old soft shoe
He jumped so high- jumped so high
Then he lightly touched down

Mister Bojangles
Mister Bojangles
Mister Bojangles

I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was
Down and out
He looked at me to be the eyes of age
As he spoke right out
He talked of life- talked of life
Laughed, slapped his leg a step

He said, “The name’ 'Bojangles,'” and he danced a lick
Across the cell
He grabbed his pants fo’ a better stance
Oh, he jumped up high
He clicked his heels
He let go a laugh- he let go a laugh
Shook back his clothes all around

Mister Bojangles
Mister Bojangles
Mister Bojangles

He danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs
Throughout the South
He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog ‘n’ him
They traveled about
His dog up and died- he up and died
After twenty years he still grieves

He said, “I dance now at every chance in honkytonks”
“For drinks and tips”
“But most the time I spend behind these county bars”
“’cause I drinks a bit”
He shook his head and as he shook his head
I heard someone ask, “Please”

“Mister Bojangles”
“Mister Bojangles”
“Mister Bojangles”

Mister Bojangles
Mister Bojangles
Mister Bojangles

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