Country singer Jerry Jeff Walker who wrote the poignant drifter ballad ‘Mister Bojangles’ died Friday, October 23. He was 78.
‘There’s a photo on the back of a long-out-of-print Jerry Jeff Walker album that sums it all up — Jerry Jeff is outside an old roadhouse on a lonesome highway. It’s night, and his collar is turned up against the chill breeze as he hunches over to light a cigarette. His guitar is slung around his back. It’s hard to tell if he’s entering or leaving the roadhouse, but either way you figure he’s got many miles to go before he sleeps…’ — From jerryjeff.com
INSPIRATION IN THE SLAMMER
Jerry Jeff Walker wrote ‘Mister Bojangles’ after a stint in a New Orleans drunk tank in 1965 with an unknown tap-dancing drifter.
Walker was unknown too, singing in coffee houses and on street corners when he was arrested for public intoxication in the Big Easy’s French Quarter.
His tap dancing cellmate, a white man, went by the nickname Bojangles, after Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a famous Black vaudeville and early film tap dancer of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Bojangles the drifter told Walker and the other inmates many stories about his life, the saddest being about his beloved dog that died.
‘He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him
The dog up and died
He up and died
After twenty years he still grieves’
The jailbirds got so emotional over the story that Bojangles did a tap dance to cheer them up.
The song has been incorrectly associated with the black tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Jerry Jeff Walker said that ain’t so. The song was inspired by the drifter in the New Orleans drunk tank.
In the song, Mr Bojangles is a heavy drinker and had a dog that died. The earlier-era “Bojangles” didn’t imbibe and never had a dog.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the highest paid black entertainer of the 1930s and ‘40s, performing in movies with child star Shirley Temple. Despite his success, he died penniless in 1949.
JERRY JEFF WALKER’S ‘MISTER BOJANGLES’
NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND
Walker wrote the song in 1968 but it didn’t become a hit until the early 1970s when The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and other performers recorded it.