This classic song is probably best known from Willie Nelson’s cover, but it was written and first sung by Jerry Jeff Walker, and my own favorite has always been the version by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (from Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy, 1970).
The great Bill Robinson who danced with Shirley Temple was also nicknamed “Bojangles” but Jerry Jeff’s song is about a homeless man and street performer he met when they were in the drunk tank together. In fact, there is some disagreement about whether that Mr. Bojangles was black or white. The best argument that he was white is that the jail was in New Orleans in 1965, when jails in the South were segregated.
Songfacts gives some background on the song:
In his book Gypsy Songman, Walker tells the story: “One of the guys in the cell jumped up and said, ‘Come on, Bojangles. Give us a little dance.’ ‘Bojangles’ wasn’t so much a name as a category of itinerant street entertainer known back as far as the previous [Nineteenth] century. The old man said, ‘Yes, Hell yes.’ He jumped up, and started clapping a rhythm, and he began to dance. I spent much of that long holiday weekend talking to the old man, hearing about the tough blows life had dealt him, telling him my own dreams.” Walker moved on to Texas, where he sat down to write: “And here it came, just sort of tumbling out, one straight shot down the length of that yellow pad. On a night when the rest of the country was listening to The Beatles, I was writing a 6/8 waltz about an old man and hope. It was a love song. In a lot of ways, Mr. Bojangles is a composite. He’s a little bit of several people I met for only moments of a passing life. He’s all those I met once and will never see again and will never forget.”
The song shows that a successful one doesn’t have to follow a formula:
“‘Bojangles’ broke all the rules. It was too long, was 6/9 time, about an old drunk and a dead dog. They had so many reasons why it didn’t fit anything. It would have never been a song if I had been living in Nashville and tried to take it through there.”
I had to shorten this Wikipedia list of recording artists who have covered “Mr. Bojangles”: Garth Brooks, Kristofer Åström, Chet Atkins, Hugues Aufray, Harry Belafonte, JJ Cale, Johnny Paycheck, Bobby Cole, King Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr., John Denver, Neil Diamond, Cornell Dupree, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Whitney Houston, Queen Ifrica, Billy Joel, Elton John, Lulu, MC Neat, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Cat Stevens, Radka Toneff, Robbie Williams, Buck Fisher, Bebe Neuwirth, Wendell Stuart, Dolly Parton and Helge Schneider . . .
As you can see, there’s a generous sprinkling of funny names in there! “Mr. Bojangles” is a gift that keeps on giving.
Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles, dance…