Mr. Bojangles

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.”

Mr. Bojangles (1968)

Mr. Bojangles (1968)

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…

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17 Responses to Mr. Bojangles

  1. Pingback: Mr. BoFNgles | What Do You Do for an Encore?

  2. ksbeth says:

    Wow, I had no idea. Mr. B really has been around –

  3. Dave says:

    Awesome! I’ve heard the name a lot but thought Mr. Bojangles was a person! Very cool to hear it was actually a song (and a really interesting, good one at that!). I always like seeing songs with odd time signatures too! Great post Diddy!

    • wdydfae says:

      Thanks, King Dave! I’m actually scratching my head over that “6/9” time signature reference in the quote and wonder if it’s a typo, since it seems like 6/8 (or 3/4) to me. I had a cool time signature in a “Birds of Fire” post, complete with a Wikipedia link about songs with weird time signatures:
      http://whatdoyoudoforanencore.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/birds-of-fire-mahavishnu-orchestra/

      Sorry I’ve been going AWOL around here . . .

      • Dave says:

        Very cool! I’ll admit I don’t always try to count the time signatures, but I definitely notice when something isn’t 4/4. I don’t think you’ve been going AWOL at all. This is a fun place, not one that gives you any obligations or anything. 🙂 With med school going on, I couldn’t handle any more obligations anyway 🙂

  4. kerbey says:

    I keep this NGDB version on my music playlist, so I listen to it quite often. I always took it literally; I thought it was about THE Mr. Bojangles. I always thought, “Bless his heart, he was a famous performer, and then he wound up in the drunk tank.” I had no idea it was another man. That’s like singing about another Aunt Jemima. There’s only one. Confusing! Well, now I don’t have to feel so sorry for Bill Bojangles Robinson. And Jerry Jeff Walker is well-known around these parts in Texas.

    • wdydfae says:

      [Edited] Thanks, Kerbey! Jerry Jeff is a great songwriter.

      You might enjoy the back story of exactly why Jerry Jeff was in the tank:

      “He spent some time in New Orleans, where one day he was a bit tipsy and made a public display trying to convince a young lady that love at first sight was real. This landed him in jail, where his cell mate was an older black man who made a living as a street dancer and told Walker all about his life.”

      But others dispute that Mr. Bojangles was a black man, so I don’t know how much of this lore is true.

      You already knew more about Bojangles to start with because I didn’t know about Bill Robinson or his nickname. But apparently “Bojangles” was a nickname for performers in minstrel shows, going back to the 1800s.

  5. I thought Bob Dylan sang a version of the song, and sure enough he was listed!

    • wdydfae says:

      Thanks for the comment. I had to cut the list short because there’s a draconian word limit around here (which is actually good for posting discipline!) but I tried not to leave out 1) funnily named performers, 2) the greats.

  6. Liz says:

    Is this your Swan Song, diddy? If so, you done good. More educatin’ is always welcome. Way back when, my now-husband would drag me to his college fraternity dances (not too terribly Greek–it was the Farmhouse Fraternity) (*shudder*) and they’d play Fishin’ in the Dark by this dumb band called Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (city girl that I was and am) I’m grateful to my husband and all others along the way (yourself included) who have opened my eyes to different styles of music.

    Don’t be a stranger! You’re my favorite person to fake-fight with.

  7. Arto says:

    “And here’s Buck Fisher with Mr. Bojangles!”

    When I hear words like that I know I’m in the right night club.

    Grand post, I love saying “Bojangles” just to express astonishment at the state of things. Great to hear the back story!

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